GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And our show today: transformation - stories and ideas about becoming a completely different person. Imagine rejecting everything you know, everything you were taught to believe, and starting over. When you think about all your life and the arc of your life, do you think of it as a transformation? That you gave yourself a second chance to have a completely different life?
ZAK EBRAHIM: That's a very difficult question.
RAZ: This is Zak Ebrahim.
EBRAHIM: I certainly - I guess I would use the term transformation. In some way, I'm very different in my beliefs than I was when I was, I mean, even 10 years ago.
RAZ: And really, you could say his transformation began more than 20 years ago. One November night in 1990, Zak Ebrahim told that story on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
EBRAHIM: On November 5th 1990, a man named El-Sayyid Nosair walked into a hotel in Manhattan and assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane, the leader of the Jewish Defense League. Nosair was initially found not guilty of the murder but, while serving time on lesser charges, he and other men began planning attacks on a dozen New York City landmarks, including tunnels, synagogues and United Nations headquarters. Thankfully those plans were foiled by an FBI informant. Sadly, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center was not. Nosair would eventually be convicted for his involvement in the plot. El-Sayyid Nosair is my father.
RAZ: Zak Ebrahim was just seven years old at the time. He was too young to know that his dad was a member of a jihadist cell. And eventually he'd get life in prison. And I know you were really young but do you remember asking, where's dad?
EBRAHIM: I did. I was told that he had been injured and that he was in the hospital recuperating. And the next thing I know, we are riding in our station wagon to Rikers Island to visit him for the first time, you know. My mother told me get in the car we're going to go see your father so I did, you know. The prison guards told me to open my mouth to check inside to see if I was hiding any, you know, razors or something. I just, you know, just kind of went with it.
RAZ: And Zak basically accepted what a lot of his dad's friends told him. That his father was a hero.
EBRAHIM: I had one man who, every time he saw me, he would give me a hundred dollar bill, apparently for what my father had done. I actually bought my first Game Boy with a hundred dollar bill that this guy had given me.
RAZ: Today, 25 years later, Zak Ebrahim is a peace activist. But to get there would require a kind of rebirth.
EBRAHIM: It was a very slow process, took a long time. But I had to kind of reevaluate the way I saw my father and his belief system. And so I had to basically realize that my father was an extremist, and that he was willing to take innocent people's lives for his cause.
RAZ: To realize that, to experience that kind of transformation, meant he had to make a choice. The choice to change.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
EBRAHIM: I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1983 to him, an Egyptian engineer, and a loving American mother - and great schoolteacher - who, together, tried their best to create a happy childhood for me. It wasn't until I was seven years old that our family dynamic started to change. My father exposed me to a side of Islam that few people, including the majority of Muslims, get to see. A few months prior to his arrest, he sat me down and explained that for the past few weekends he and some friends have been going to a shooting range on Long Island for target practice. He told me I'd be going with him the next morning. We arrived at Calverton Shooting Range which, unbeknownst to our group, was being watched by the FBI. When it was my turn to shoot, my father helped me hold the rifle to my shoulder and explained how to aim at the target about 30 yards off. That day, the last bullet I shot hit a small orange light that sat on top of the target, and to everyone's surprise, especially mine, the entire target burst into flames. My uncle turned to the other men and, in Arabic, said (speaking Arabic) like father like son. They thought they saw in me the same destruction my father was capable of. Those men would eventually be convicted of placing a van filled with 1,500 pounds of explosives into the sublevel parking lot of the World Trade Center's North Tower; causing an explosion that killed six people and injured over a thousand others. These were the men I looked up to. These were the men I called (speaking Arabic) which means uncle. By the time I turned 19, I had already moved 20 times in my life. And that instability during my childhood didn't really provide an opportunity to make very many friends. Being the perpetual new face in class, I was frequently the target of bullies. So for the most part, I spent my time at home reading books and watching TV or playing video games. And growing up in a bigoted household, I wasn't prepared for the real world. I had been raised to judge people based on arbitrary measurements, like a person's race or religion.
He would just talk about Jews being evil. And I would hear similar things from, you know, from the men that were with him. You know, gay people being evil and them wanting to turn you gay so that you would go to hell too;. And just them being all-around terrible people and a bad influence. And he used to say things like, a bad Muslim is better than a good non-Muslim.
RAZ: Do you ever remember, you know, sort of feeling that way too?
EBRAHIM: Yeah, I mean, that's pretty much what indoctrination is, you know. You have authority figures around you telling you that the world is one way and you don't get to see another perspective. You know, the people that I felt safe with taught me these things and so, you know, you just kind of accepted them as fact.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
EBRAHIM: One of my first experiences that challenge this way of thinking, was during the 2000 presidential elections. Through a college prep program I was able to take part in the National Youth Convention in Philadelphia. My particular group's focus was on youth violence and, having been the victim of bullying for most of my life, this was a subject in which I felt particularly passionate. The members of our group came from many different walks of life. One day toward the end of the convention, I found out that one of the kids I had befriended was Jewish. Now it had taken several days for this detail to come to light and I realized that there was no natural animosity between the two of us. I had never had a Jewish friend before. And frankly, I felt a sense of pride in having been able to overcome a barrier that, for most of my life, I had been led to believe was insurmountable. Another major turning point came when I found a summer job at Busch Gardens, an amusement park. As chance would have it, I had the opportunity to work with some of the gay performers at a show there, and soon found that many were the kindest, least judgmental people I had ever met. I don't know what it's like to be gay but I'm well acquainted with being judged for something that's beyond my control. One day I had a conversation with my mother about how my worldview was starting to change. And she said something to me that I will hold dear to my heart for as long as I live. She looked at me with the weary eyes of someone who'd experienced enough dogmatism to last a lifetime, and said I'm tired of hating people. In that instant, I realized how much negative energy it takes to hold that hatred inside of you.
RAZ: That must have been so powerful.
EBRAHIM: Yeah, you know, that was one of the most transformative times of my life. I kind of just wanted to let her know where my mind was starting to go. And when she told me, it felt like she gave me permission to go out into the world and just experience people for who they were instead of trying to fit them into some kind of, you know, category or box of some kind. Just to be free in a way.
RAZ: You describe what you've done as a choice. That you just - you made a choice. You decided that you were not going to be this person you were kind of raised to be.
EBRAHIM: Well, I don't know that we're meant to be anything other than the sum of our experiences. And I knew that from my experience that I had - you know, from being bullied - that I didn't want to be the bully. And at the same time I didn't want to be bullied. Because I knew what that felt like, the loneliness and the feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. I knew that I didn't want to treat people like that. And if I could, I wanted to prevent others from treating people like that so that they didn't have to go through the same thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
EBRAHIM: Zak Ebrahim is not my real name. I changed it when my family decided to end our connection with my father and start a new life. So why would I out myself and potentially put myself in danger? Well, that's simple. I do it in the hopes that perhaps someone, some day, who is compelled to use violence may hear my story and realize that there is a better way. That although I had been subjected to this violent, intolerant ideology, that I did not become fanaticized. Instead I choose to use my experience to fight back against terrorism, against bigotry. I do it for the victims of terrorism and their loved ones. For the terrible pain and loss that terrorism has forced upon their lives. For the victims of terrorism I will speak out against these senseless acts and condemn my father's actions. And with that simple fact, I stand here as proof that violence isn't inherent in one's religion or race. And the son does not have to follow the ways of his father. I am not my father. Thank you.
RAZ: Zak Ebrahim, peace activist. He's the author of the newly released TED book "The Terrorist's Son: A Story Of Choice." You can find out more about it and see Zak's full talk at TED.com. More stories of transformation in a moment. I'm Guy Raz and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.