11th November 2020

Zak Ebrahim on being radicalised by his father, learning tolerance and the meaning of forgiveness in relation to extremist ideologies

Marina Cantacuzino talks to Zak Ebrahim. When Zak was seven, his father shot and killed the founder of the Jewish Defence League, Rabbi Meir Kahane and later was convicted for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Zak’s story is one of transforming his past and learning to reject bigotry and hate.

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Show Notes

Zak Ebrahim is an American peace campaigner, public speaker and author of the TEDBook, The Terrorist’s Son: A Story of Choice, winner of the 2015 American Library Association Alex Award. He is the son of El Sayyid Nosair, who assassinated Meir Kahane, a militant Orthodox rabbi and the founder of the Jewish Defense League. Zak shares his message of breaking free from indoctrination so that others may be inspired to do the same.

Read Zak’s story

“The greatest agony is to have an untold story held within you.”
Maya Angelou

“One of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because they believe that once hate has gone they will be forced to deal with their pain.”
James Baldwin

Transcript

Marina: Welcome to The F Word Podcast – a podcast series which examines, excavates, unpicks and reframes Forgiveness through the lives of others. I am Marina Cantacuzino, a journalist from London, Founder of The Forgiveness Project Charity and I’ve built my career investigating how those who face the most complex and devastating things in life find a way through. I will be talking fortnightly to a guest who has experienced something very difficult or traumatic in their life but who rather than respond with hate or bitterness has embraced or at the very least considered forgiveness as a response to pain.

So for this episode of The F Word Podcast I am going to be talking to Zak Ebrahim, another of the storytellers for The Forgiveness Project. Zak’s story begins in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he was born in 1983. He had an American mother, a teacher and an Egyptian father, an engineer and when he was seven his father assassinated an ultra-orthodox anti-Arab rabbi. His father was convicted and imprisoned and later also found guilty of involvement in a 1993 World Trade Centre bombing.

So, Zak it is quite a story and it is great to see you again.

Zak: Well, first of all thank you very much for inviting me to the Podcast and I am looking forward to the conversation.

Marina: So, I thought I would take this brief little amount of time that I have got with you to ask you about why you have chosen to share your story so publicly.

I know you have done a TV talk, you have written a book and Maya Angelou once said that the greatest agony is to have an untold story held within you and I suppose what she means is that silence sometimes can really lock people into the trauma. So, I am wondering how telling your story has actually helped you deal with the pain.

Zak: It has really helped enormously. For much of my life I hid my identity from the people closest to me. I would tell people that my father had died of a heart attack. I changed my name when I was sixteen so there was no way to connect my name at least with my father and his history.

During that period I really felt quite stifled. I felt that I could never truly be sure if my friends would be my friends if they knew what my father had done. I had so many experiences where people were judging me because of my father’s actions and I truly felt like I couldn’t be fully myself. I knew that there was value in my story but I really didn’t have the self-confidence to think that I was capable of sharing that message but I was very fortunate that people in my life were very supportive of me and frankly, believed in me, and were my courage before I had it.

So, the first time I ever got up on stage I wasn’t even sure if I could speak in a language that human beings could understand. I was very nervous, but the event went beautifully and people seemed to really react positively to it. Then that was really the very first time that I thought to myself OK I can do this and from that point on I felt like I had found my sense of purpose. That is something we are all looking for in life. Being able to share my story allowed me to fully be who I am and I think that is one of the greatest gifts I have got from this.

Marina: Can we backtrack a bit to you as a child. Can you maybe explain a little bit about the person you were as a boy and how that changed as your father’s Islamist extremism kind of took over and you became aware of it as you got older and whether that changed your personality in any way.

Zak: I have a lot of really great memories of my father and my family before he became radicalised. He was a very kind and humorous man. It wasn’t until I was about seven years old that he started spending less time at home and more time at the mosque with these men, who were themselves radicalised. When you are that young you don’t really know how to question what you are being taught. You assume your parents have your best interests at heart and so you just accept what they tell you is the truth.

My father essentially preached an ideology that said that anyone who didn’t fit into a very narrow idea of what it means to be good, was an enemy. So, we were very much taught to be fearful of anyone who didn’t look like us, who didn’t sound like us, who didn’t share the same beliefs as us and that includes others in the Muslim community. When I talk about isolation I mean really truly isolated from being able to interact with anyone who didn’t fit into that narrative.

So, my father would often try and convey stories to me about Muslims and Jews being natural enemies and that we would know that we were natural enemies from across the room, the moment we saw each other. I saw this kind of indoctrination being played out with other children in that group. So, I don’t know that it necessarily changed me so much as formed the foundation of how I would perceive the world and at that age, as I said, it is impossible to really question what you are being taught.

Marina: So I am presuming that you grew up with your own prejudices then learnt from your father. I am wondering how that played out at school and going forward and obviously we are here today talking and you are a very different man to the boy you were. Can you talk me through how that change occurred from the bigot to the very broadminded peace-loving person who is trying to create a better world?

Zak: It’s a difficult question. I think that when I was younger I was always looking for my sense of purpose. I knew that I wanted to do something that helped people but I wasn’t really sure in what capacity that could be. And it really wasn’t until many years later that I was able to escape the isolation that is required to radicalise someone and actually began to interact with the people that I had been taught to hate that I could even begin to question whether or not what I had been taught was the truth.

In the first time I made a gay friend what was so impactful in that interaction for me was that I showed this young man hatred for something, frankly I knew very little about, and his response to me was to show me kindness.

I had been bullied very badly as a kid. I had moved twenty times by the time I was nineteen so it was a very unstable childhood. It was impossible for me to ignore that I was doing to him what had been done to me a thousand times before. Because I was so familiar with that feeling I naturally couldn’t bring myself to want to perpetuate that and it was almost an act of defiance.

It would have been very easy for him to respond to me in kind and to be hateful. That would have been the easy solution. But instead he gave me an unexpected reaction and I think sometimes when the world reacts to you in an unexpected way it forces you to pause and think about what it is that you are doing and how it is you perceive the world and whether that’s correct or not. So I think that was really what was so profound for me was in that instant I had to confront my own hypocrisy.

Marina: So that was the first example probably. I remember you talking before about how Jon Stewart affected you and I find it really interesting that someone who was a complete stranger to you but appeared on television could actually have such a profound effect on you. I think it is really important actually for all of us to realise that could have been for good or bad. In this case it was for good. Can you just say a bit more about what actually happened?

Zak: Jon Stewart of course hosted The Daily Show and so it was an avenue for a young man to become engaged in politics and things like that. While growing up my life was devoid of positive male role models. I had my mother at home. She always tried to teach me lessons about treating people the way I wanted to be treated and not judging a book by its cover but I still felt like I needed that male presence in my life. As hard as I tried I couldn’t seem to find a positive one.

Then Jon Stewart was really the first male role model that forced me again to confront the things that I believed. He did it in such a humorous and intellectual way and it was just very easy for me to follow along. He frankly made me feel quite foolish for believing a lot of the things that I believed and that was just hugely impactful for me. It was the first time that I had ever seen a political perspective really outside of what I had been taught as a child so it was very new to me and frankly pretty exciting.

Marina: You mentioned your mother there and I know she was a huge influence. Was she equally drawn in by your father’s fundamentalism and did she also help you develop your own ways of thinking?

Zak: Well, as I just said, my mother tried to install in me those kind of typical lessons about how we want to treat each other but it serves a larger point to bring up that my mother, whilst she certainly rejected the extremist aspects of my father’s ideology, certainly held her own bigoted views.

I knew that my mind had been poisoned from a young age so my mother could at once espouse a belief that we shouldn’t judge each other for arbitrary measurements and at the same time do precisely that. At the same time I think my mother knew that my father wanted to be a part of the jihadi movement that was taking place at the time and that essentially came in the form of my father very much wanting to go and fight in the Afghan war.

After my experiences of having the opportunity to interact with people who were different from me I began to realise the way I viewed the world was changing and my mother was someone that I would go to and have these kinds of conversations with. So, one day I sat down with her and I started to explain to her my beliefs and frankly I think while I did it, I was maybe convincing her.

Marina: Actually I just want to cut in here to add a tiny bit from Zak’s 2014 TED talk which has now been viewed nearly 6 million times.

“One day I had a conversation with my mother about how my world view 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 had experienced enough dogmatism to last a lifetime and said, “I’m tired of hating”.

Zak: And it became so apparent to me just how much energy it took to hold that hatred inside of you not ultimately that hatred is founded in fear, fear of what we don’t understand of people that we don’t understand.

I had talked with so many people who been indoctrinated into similar ideologies and when I think of the common themes among so many of us, is that it is exhausting having to have those beliefs. And, that given the opportunity I think the vast majority of people who have been radicalised would happily accept a belief system that was more based in equality, but a lot of times the environment we live in doesn’t allow us to find a path.

Marina: One of my favourite quotes is by James Baldwin, the writer, an American writer. He says “one of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because they believe that once hate has gone they will be forced to deal with their pain”. That really struck me as very, very profound.

Zak: It certainly speaks of the evolution of the things that I had felt. By the time I was twenty/ twenty-one years old I looked at myself and I thought wow I have escaped so much of these traumatic experiences relatively unscathed and it really wasn’t until I was in my mid to late twenties that I began to understand just how much anger and resentment that I had because of the difficulties in my past.

As a writer you hear all the time about it being a very cathartic experience and I spent years sitting down by myself in my living room writing about the worst experiences of my life. Frankly, it was horrible. I kept waiting for that moment that I would start to feel better and it seemed like it would never come.

But, eventually it did. I began to have a more fuller understanding of what I felt and the reasons that I felt it. So, I was able to go from the “how” to the “why” and if you cannot get to the “why” then you cannot find meaning in your experience. That was really what I understood eventually that I was searching for. I was trying to find meaning from the experiences that I had had.

Then it was several years after that before I could really feel like I was in control of a lot of the emotions that I felt. It frankly was a really painful experience but I am not sure that it is something that I can never fully get rid of, but I am certainly a better person because of it.

Marina: And we haven’t spoken about your feelings towards your father since he was convicted and imprisoned and still is in prison. So, I am just wondering does forgiveness come into this story somewhere?

Zak: That is a very good question and a very complicated question. It is something that I go back and forth with and I think about what I have control over him and what I don’t.

For example, one of the things that I really struggle with is being in communication with my father. Our communication over the years has been sporadic and unhealthy, for me anyway. I consider myself an emphatic person and I realise that there are only two things that my father really wants from his prison cell and that is either his freedom or a relationship with his family.

And, there is only one of those things that I can control or that I could believe that he deserves. So, I feel a guilt in my own heart that I cannot bring myself to give him some relief from that. Forgiveness, to me I think, I have to frame it in a way to say that I had to forgive him so that I could forgive myself. Certainly I can’t forgive him for the ways that his actions affected other people. But, for me personally, I think I had to forgive the man that he was and the actions that he committed, so that I could find peace. So, in a way it was a selfish kind of act. At times we need to be selfish.

Marina: That makes perfect sense. It also leads me to ask you whether you have sort to meet him, to correspond with him, to have any sort of dialogue at all.

Zak: Well I have been speaking publicly for about ten years now. After the very first speech that I gave I got back to my hotel room and there was an email from one of his lawyers saying that your father has been looking for you for years. I was actually on the cover of the Philadelphia Daily News that morning and I believe that is how his lawyer found out.

I was so freaked out by the email that I never even responded but a few years after that I get an email from the bureau of the prison saying that my father wanted to begin email communication me and I had ten days to decide “yes” or “no”. So I took this opportunity to communicate with him. He was in the process of going through appeals at the time and so I don’t think that he could be as fully transparent perhaps as he wanted to be.

But, when I asked him these questions which I had thought about for much of my life, he frankly responded in a very negative way. He told me that I was stupid for asking him these questions and even accused me of somehow trying to implicate him so that his appeal process would fail. That, frankly devastated me. I had put so much importance in those questions and in his answers for months. At that point the conversation had become very unhealthy so I decided to end communication with him and for some time after that I really felt very depressed about not having been able to find those answers.

Then one morning I woke up and I felt relief and I wasn’t even sure why. As I thought about it more, I realised that my father was incapable of giving me the answers that I was searching for because his ideology dictated that he see the world in a black and white lens, one in which all the arbitrary ways that people who hold those kinds of radical ideologies judge others, made him incapable of giving me a well-rounded or educated, frankly, response. So, realising that in a sense set me free. I no longer needed his answers.

Marina: That’s really interesting because I often talk about how forgiveness is quite useful when something can’t be repaired when someone who has hurt you is unable to show remorse, because if it can be repaired then a kind of reconciliation can happen, but actually forgiveness is useful when reconciliation can’t happen and forgiveness in the sense of letting go and acceptance. It seems that’s in a way what happened to you very suddenly without you having to think it through, it was just a very natural process.

Zak: I think that’s speaks to time frankly. As I get older and as I realise that, as I was just saying, some things just cannot be fixed. Some things can be broken to the point that they cannot be repaired. There was a long time learning that lesson. I think I needed to grow and experience the world and frankly to break things and to not be able to repair things to understand that.

For me, my relationship with my father evolved so much over time. When I was younger and he was in prison I couldn’t verbalise it. I couldn’t understand it fully but I knew that I needed a father.

Once I was into my mid-teens, I was in search of that male role model who could instil in me a sense of self-confidence, instil wisdom in me. As I got into my twenties, my perspective changed. I didn’t need a father figure anymore and I think that was perhaps the time where I could begin to process a lot of the things that had happened between my father and I.

So, I try and convey in my message just how important it is that we be patient with ourselves and that we give ourselves the time that we need. Everyone wants to feel better, we want to feel whole, we want to feel healed and forcing it sometimes can make it worse and I think you know in some ways as I began to write, I was trying to force it and it really took me a long time of going through that process to realise that as hard as you worked, sometimes it just takes time and you have to be patient.

Marina: So Zak just tell me a little bit about what you are doing now and how you are using your story in ways that can impact people most.

Zak: A lot of what I talk about is starting to focus on mental health my own, by using my own experiences and difficulties and battling depression and things like that. To make others know that it is OK to have those conversations and in a sense to show people that there is a strength in vulnerability.

So my process has evolved over the years and speaking is a thing that has given me a sense of purpose in life. Sometimes you know it can be quite draining but nothing good comes easy and my hope is simply that the work that I do and the feeling that it gives me continue to energise me and motivate me to keep moving forward. But there is a limit to efficacy. You know it is wonderful to inspire people in an hour, or an hour and a half, but that is not something I believe that can lead to systemic change.

What is required is a programme in place that can reinforce lessons. So I began a non-profit organisation run with the hopes of creating at this moment two separate programmes. One is an Art Box Therapy Programme where we provide skype lessons to people who have experienced traumatic events all over the world. We will mail them a box of materials that allows them to create art and we provide lessons over skype for that.

The other aspect of the non-profit is building a programme that we can take into schools and communities that reinforce communication between groups that don’t have the opportunity to interact with one another.

I think ultimately that is the most effective way to reduce the ability for extremist groups to find new recruits. When a group like ISIS, for example, attacks a western country they do not do it with the thought that they are an existential threat to that government, their goal is to create division in societies so that we may be more fearful of each other because of the colour of our skin, the sound of our names or the length of our beards. Knowing their tactics allows us to react in a better way and I think that the best way to do that is, as I said, to try and solidify the bonds between communities that don’t have that opportunity.

Marina: That’s really interesting. I am particularly interested in the fact that you are using art as well as a way through because the longer I work in this field of Restorative Justice and Conflict of Resolution, the more I think that actually reaching people through storytelling is very powerful but to get them involved in creative activities using their imagination and letting go of the mind in a way is so powerful.

So, good luck with that. It sounds absolutely amazing. And I want to thank you so much, Zak, for talking to me. It is wonderful to see you again.

Zak: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.

Marina: Thank you for listening to The F Word Podcast. To dig a bit deeper around some of the themes we have talked about do check out the show notes by going to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast. From there you can also explore The Forgiveness Project website which over the years has collected and shared many more stories of how people have transformed the darkest of situations.

I also want to invite you to join The F Word Podcast Facebook Group especially if you have more to discuss or share. Again, to find the link go to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast. And finally, all these podcasts have grown out of years of trying to shift the narrative of our time away from one of hate and division towards empathy and understanding.

So, if you have enjoyed this podcast please do consider donating even just the smallest amount to help us to continue our wok. All details of how to do this again are on the show notes page of our website.

But, most of all, I hope you will join me again.

Next time I am going to be talking to Lis Cashin. It is a story about guilt, traumatic memory, self-forgiveness and how you learn to heal when you are the cause of the tragic accident.

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