Monday, August 10, 2015

Making a Choice

Zak Ibrahim | Image (c) Sharon Mattson
When it comes down to the basics, life is really just about choice and consequence. And that can define the route your life takes: whether on the side of peace, or otherwise. Zak Ebrahim embodies the pragmatism in making that very choice in life, and his story is a beautiful reminder that we are inherently capable of being peaceful, and powerful in the manifestation of that choice. We had the honour of interviewing Zak following a very tearful and moving experience of watching his TEDTalk. Excerpts follow.

Could you start by telling us your story? Of course, it is there in the talk, but this is just for the benefit of our readers.
I was born in the US, in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. My father was from Egypt and was a Muslim, and an engineer by profession. My mother was a Catholic and a grade school teacher. We were a normal family, and there was nothing about us that you'd say wouldn't fall in line with the usual, average American family. We were a devout Muslim family when it came to faith. When I was around six years old, my father came to be involved with the group of men who were responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Centre. On November 5, 1990,  my father walked into a hotel in Manhattan and assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane, the leader of the Jewish Defense League. The government had classified the Jewish Defence League as a terrorist organisation in the US, and many saw this act of my father's as one extremist killing another. The New York City Police concluded that my father was acting alone, and found him guilty not of murder initially, but for the possession of weapons - and later, murder. He was sentenced to between 7 and 22 years in prison, and a large part of my childhood went into visiting him in prison with the hope that he would come out soon and we would be a happy family again. My father maintained his innocence throughout, but, while still in jail, he plotted with a few other men, to put together what was known as the "Day of Terror". Their idea was to attack a dozen landmarks across New York City, including tunnels, synagogues and the headquarters of the United Nations. However, those plans were foiled by an FBI informant who was part of the plot. But, ultimately, my father went on to being convicted for his involvement during the trial for the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993.

How did the transition happen for you personally? Children are impressionable and tend to imbibe perceptions from adults around them - how did you keep yourself grounded in your beliefs of peace?
Telling my story is not something new to me. Before I began speaking publicly, I faced a lot of reactions around  me to the things that happened. There were a few people within and outside the Muslim community saw the assassination of the Rabbi as a good thing for Muslims. He was responsible for the murder of many Muslims, and as a young child, there was a way for me to justify the violent choice my father made. There was a portion of the Muslim community that believed that Meir Kahane’s assassination was justifiable because he was an extremist, while many others believed that the violence was wrong, and simply didn't want to have anything to do with us. We were ostracised and had to hide our identity. After the World Trade Centre was bombed in 1993, there was no justification for my father's violence and his radical ideology. It took me many years to see that the assassination of the Rabbi was inexcusable, too. Violence begets violence, and that's how it is. The assassination of the Rabbi did nothing for the Israel-Palestine conflict, which at that time was cited as one of the reasons for the assassination. In Israel itself, his son and wife were killed, and a lot of other lives were lost. The circle of violence just continued.

What made you make that choice to be peaceful, to abandon violence?
While growing up, we lived a very unstable life. My father was the breadwinner. My mother started off with training to be a teacher, but dropped out to take care of the family, and then became a single mother - but not just that, a single mother with a notorious and infamous husband. We moved a lot, about 30 times in my life so far, just to deal with my father's imprisonment. We were met with a lot of hatred, and a lot of people wanted to take revenge on us for what my father did, so there were a lot of death threats, too. Since I moved so much, I had to change schools as much. I was always the new kid, incredibly quiet, and had this strange sounding name. I was bullied very badly. I didn't realise it at the time, but the bullying actually gave me a very beautiful lesson - the value of empathy. When it came to my perpetuation of stereotypes, I decided not to treat people in any way that was different from how I wanted to be treated. To indoctrinate someone, it is important to isolate them from the community you want to demonise. Stereotypes are always broken with interaction. In 2000, during the presidential elections, through a college prep program, I took part in the National Youth Convention in Philadelphia. My group's focus was on youth violence, and since I was a victim of bullying for most of my life, this was a subject I was very passionate about. The members of our group came from different walks of life, and towards the end, I found that one of the kids I had made friends with was Jewish. It took me this interaction to realise that there is no difference - we are all the same. 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 I believed to be simply insurmountable. Religion, race, sexual orientation - none of these things take away from who people are deep down. I moved away from the ideology I was familiar with, and that made me make the choice.

Zak Ebrahim | Image (c) Sharon Mattson
What made you tell your story? Was there a conscious choice behind it?
I did it for many reasons. After 9/11, I saw the many different ways in which Muslims were being portrayed and stereotyped. I am an atheist, but I work with many different organisations that promote work on inter-faith dialogue, and have mutual respect for each other's beliefs and live together without violence. Just because I am an atheist and don't subscribe to a religion does not mean that I close myself off to those who believe in a given religion or faith. I am moved and motivated by people who work hard to make the world a better place. I always tell people that it is important to get involved in these efforts, and that motivates me.

Thank you for sharing your story so candidly. Talking about it isn't easy, we understand.
It is not easy to talk or write about your worst experiences. When I was working on the book for TED, it was emotionally tough to confront these experiences, but it was a therapeutic process. It was amazing to see the support I had - about 99.97% people were positive, and I was given things I never thought I'd get. Bullying causes low self-esteem, and I was never, ever aware that I would get what I got later in life.

What were your challenges like? Did telling your story come with a price?
The main concern of speaking publicly was the exposure to the potential of danger. My family has received death threats and people wanted to take revenge. Safety was a concern. But, there have been no regrets. I believe I've been incredibly lucky. As a 14-15 year old kid growing up in the ghetto, I never thought I'd have the opportunities I have today, but I am very lucky to have had all the positive and the negative experiences and influences in my life.

What are your goals for the future? You are a peace-worker, and what do you see for the world around you, through your actions?
My path seems to be changing every year. Because of the book and the public speaking experiences, I've interacted with many people. I spoke about faith, sharing the stage with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in London. I represented the forum as an atheist there. I want to start a non-profit which will help and attend to youth who are vulnerable and susceptible to indoctrination. I know what it is to grow up in poverty and deprivation of opportunity, and lack. I want to reach out to young people in these sections of society, and tell them that their choices matter, and that they have every shot at a bright future as everyone else.

To see Zak's TED Talk, click here
To read the transcript of Zak's TED Talk, click here

To know more about Zak, check out his website here and buy a copy of his book "The Terrorist's Son" here. You can also read our review of the book on our PeaceReads initiative site.