Zak Ebrahim’s father is notorious for all the wrong reasons.
Currently serving a life sentence as a convicted terrorist for conspiracy in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, El Sayyid Nosair was imprisoned when his son was just in grade school. For Ebrahim, that meant growing up being taught to hate, bullied by his peers for the crimes his father committed and simultaneously revered by the insular community his father was a part of.
“I bought my first Game Boy with a $100 bill that someone handed me because of what my father did,” he said. “So there were a lot of mixed signals about what’s right and what’s wrong, and when is violence OK, and when is it not.”
After moving several times, changing his name and settling into a new life no longer under the influential reach of his father, Ebrahim became aware of how sheltered he had been and began to question the ideas he was taught.
“The first time I made a gay friend I was not nice to this person… it was like slapping myself in the face realizing that I was doing to this kid exactly what had been done to me a thousand times, and I didn’t want to ever make anybody feel the way I had been made to feel. And that’s when I really had to start challenging myself in what I believed and how I perceived people.”
In a conversation with his mother, Ebrahim expressed how he didn’t want to hate anymore, that he no longer wanted to separate himself from kind people. She confessed that she too had grown tired of hating, he said.
“When she said that to me, it was like she gave me permission to go out into the world and experience people unencumbered by the prejudices I had been taught,” Ebrahim said.
Ebrahim has since made it his life’s mission to advocate for peace, even writing a book about his experience “to show people not just that I was radicalized, and how I was radicalized, but what experiences I had that brought me out of it,” he said.
He hosted a successful TED Talk to encourage others to embrace empathy and tolerance, yet there is one person Ebrahim admittedly struggles to empathize with.
“I’m trying so hard to try to understand why these, these men do what they do … I never really extended that to my father…. My father’s actions, the actions of men like Osama bin Laden have ruined the way people perceive Muslims all over the world,” he said. “And I would hope that after all this time in prison you would come to that conclusion and realize that you are wrong for what you did and that nothing was made better.”
Ebrahim is still unsure whether he will reconnect with his father, but he recognizes his unique privilege and is determined to make good with it. “When a Muslim stands up and says, ‘This is not my religion,’ people don’t really care. They don’t really listen. But when the son of a terrorist does it, people pay attention.”
Check out the full conversation on this week’s episode of “Uncomfortable.”
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