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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Choosing Peace Over Hatred

Miki Yamamoto

Feb. 26, 2016

Twenty-three years ago, Islamic militants carried out a deadly bombing at the World Trade Center. One of the masterminds of the attack had a young son in the United States, who has taken a very different path.

His father's actions created many hardships growing up. But he has managed to turn away from that legacy of hate, towards a message of peace.

"I was 7 years old when my father went to prison and not a day goes by that I don’t wish he had chosen a peaceful path," Zak Ebrahim said at a recent TEDx talk in the Japanese city of Himi, Toyama Prefecture.

Today, Ebrahim is 32. He was invited to Japan for the first time to share his thoughts on peace at a forum.

"No, peace does not mean an absence of violence," he said. "Peace is a proliferation of justice. Peace is having the courage to hold onto that sense of justice in the face of extreme violence."

Ebrahim's book "The Terrorist’s Son: A Story of Choice" was published two years ago. It is a brave account that chronicles a childhood tainted by hatred and fanaticism, until the author was finally able to make his own choice.

Ebrahim was born in 1983 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His Egyptian-born father was an engineer and his American mother was a school teacher. Every weekend, little Ebrahim accompanied his father to the mosque.

"He was a very kind man. He was a very humorous man," Ebrahim recalled. "But I knew that he was becoming much more devote and spending less time with his family."

His father, El-Sayyid Nosair, immigrated to the US in pursuit of the American dream. It didn't work out. Frustration and bitterness led to him adopting radical ideas. He started to spend time with jihadists who preached hate.

"They isolate you from those that they want to teach you to fear," Ebrahim said. "And then they continuously bombarded you with negative stereotypes. And you know, ultimately it was their belief that those people were not innocent and that violence was something that was allowed against these people."

In 1990, at a Manhattan hotel, an outspoken Jewish activist named Rabbi Meir Kahane was assassinated. Ebrahim's father was arrested.

Three years later in 1993, the World Trade Center in New York was bombed. It killed six people and injured more than 1,000. Behind bars, Nosair co-masterminded the plot. He was given a life sentence.

Nosair's terrorist acts devastated the family. Ebrahim remembers how hard his school days were.

"I am an American but I am a Muslim. And how do you find a balance between those two things when you add to that fact that my father committed extremist acts of violence?" he said.

Ebrahim, his mother and his siblings changed their names to protect their safety. They moved more than 20 times in 10 years, living on the edge of poverty.

"I would come home in tears. And I would sit in my bedroom," Ebrahim recalled.

He couldn’t make friends and became a target of bullying at school. He was driven to the verge of suicide.

"There were times when I would bang my head against the wall just so that I could try and create a physical pain to the emotional pain that I was feeling," he said.

Ebrahim remembered how his father tried to teach him to judge, and hate others based on their race and religion.

"I never went to a movie. I never went out and hang out with friends, I had no social interactions with people, I was extremely isolated," he said.

Ebrahim spent a dark decade swept up in emotional turmoil, but a turning point came when he was 17 years old.

He took part in the National Youth Convention in Philadelphia. During a discussion on youth violence, Ebrahim made a friend who he later found out was Jewish -- someone he had been taught to view as an eternal enemy to Muslims.

"It really caught me by surprise, because I didn’t think that we could be friends, you know? That was the very first experience that I had that made me stop and think about the implications of my belief," Ebrahim said.

It's that crack in the darkness that enabled him to open to others. Ebrahim was at crossroads. Brought up with hate, he was finally seeing a light.

He began to meet people with different backgrounds, transcending religion, race and sexual orientation.

"You know this was a very positive thing in my life. Honestly it felt like a dark lens had been taken off my eyes and that the world was a much brighter place," he said.

This is Ebrahim today. He's no longer Muslim. He is now an atheist. He dedicates his life to speaking out against terrorism and sharing a message of peace and nonviolence.

"I am not my father. With that simple fact, I prove that violence is not inherited and nothing to do with race or religion," he said.

During his stay in Japan, Ebrahim made a special effort to visit a group of university students.

Last summer, Professor Taniguchi shared a speech by Ebrahim with students in her English class at the University of Shiga Prefecture. They were moved and sent him messages of empathy and encouragement, so he wanted to meet them in person.

"Do you still love your father?" one of the students student asked him.

"Very good question. First of all, we have to remember that there is no perfect human being in this world," Ebrahim replied.

"What is important to fight against terrorism?" asked another.

"Unfortunately we are afraid of what we don’t understand. That’s why it’s so important that we try to understand people different from us. That’s the number one way that the society we can combat terrorism," Ebrahim said.

He believes people can choose how they want to live, regardless of the circumstances into which they were born. He hopes to share his experiences with others, especially young people.

Prejudice, injustice and hatred, will likely always exist. But Ebrahim wants to change the way people react to negativity.

"I can understand the anger and frustration that people feel when they see injustice. But the difference between myself and my father is the tactics that we use to try end that injustice," he said.

"And I think it's extremely important to understand that distinction. Because to ignore where the anger comes from, to ignore the injustice, is to allow it to continue."

"Groups like Al-Qaeda, like ISIS, are not the cause of extremism. They are a symptom of a society that lacks the most basic things that humans needs: opportunity, giving people a sense of purpose, creating an environment where we can educate ourselves and our children," he said.

"The most important way to learn and to understand is to break down the walls in society that divide us, to create the same opportunity for everyone, to make sure that justice is a priority."

His father is now 58 and still in prison. The pair last communicated a few years ago.

Ebrahim wanted to ask his father why he chose the path he did, and to explain to him how his actions affected the family. He didn't get the answers he expected. Communications petered out.

"You know, there’s a big hole in my life after he left, and I wish I never had to deal with that. I wish he never had to leave. But we don’t always get what we wish for. I am a human being. Some part of me absolutely still loves my father. And some part of me feels like I don’t know my father at all. It's been 25 years since he went to prison," Ebrahim said tearfully.

"All I can try to do is look back and try to piece together why he may have chosen the path he did. I’ve gotten e-mails from people who tell me that my father is a terrorist and I have his blood in my veins so I’m a terrorist. But never for a moment did it stop me from trying to do this, so I knew that there was something valuable in my story and the lessons that I learned from them."

Ebrahim continues his rebellion, offering a portrait of a man who was raised in the fires of fanaticism but snuffed them out with nonviolence.