Legendary retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Zak Ebrahim, the son of a World Trade Centre bomb plotter, have revealed how their very different experiences of religion inspired them both to dedicate their lives to peace.
Archbishop Tutu, one of the world's best-known Christians who helped to end Apartheid in South Africa, spoke on stage with Ebrahim, who disowned his father El-Sayyid Nosair, who shot and killed the leader of the Jewish Defence League and was one of the first Islamic extremists to kill for his ideology in the United States.
Speaking at the Skoll World Forum on Wednesday, the Archbishop said it was the people he has met that affirmed his drive to campaign for change - particularly his mother when he was growing up under Apartheid in South Africa.
“Our society… told black people that they didn’t count for very much, and I had a mother who was not very educated," Archbishop Tutu said. "And I resemble her physically: she was stumpy and had a large nose, but she was just amazing in her generosity, in her compassion, in her caringness, and I hoped I might be able to emulate her.”
As a young man, he experienced a transformational moment with his mother, in a South Africa when black and white people were segregated by law. "I was standing with my mum, she was a domestic worker at a hostel for blind black women. A tall figure in a cassock swept past, and a white priest doffed his hat to my mother," Archbishop Tutu said.
“A white man, doffing his hat? To my mother, a black woman. I didn’t think that that had affected me, but I discovered that more than any other thing, it actually made me believe what we kept being told: that we are all equal.”
That moment crystalised the belief that underpinned the Archbishop's campaigning on HIV, homophobia and human rights: “It is that when you come to believe that you count, you have a worth that is inestimable, that you are a God-carrier, that there is nothing that anyone cannot do, ultimately.”
Zak Ebrahim, whose father El-Sayyid Nosair, killed the leader of the Jewish Defence League in New York in 1990 and helped to plot the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing from behind bars, was also influenced by his parents. But it was in rejecting his radicalised Islamic upbringing that he found his desire to effect social change by travelling around the world speaking against hatred and terrorism.
“I started out from a place that assumed that I already knew everything that I needed to know,” explained Ebrahim.
“Ideologically speaking, I was taught very rigid values about the kinds of people that I should associate with, and the kinds of people that were a bad influence. Isolation was a key factor in indoctrinating me.”
He had been taught by his father - who has been in prison since Ebrahim was seven - that Muslims and Jews were bitter enemies. So when he realised as a young man that one of his friends was Jewish, he felt: “A sense of pride. I thought I had accomplished something that had never been done before. That was the first instance where I really thought to myself - hmm, was what I was taught the truth?”
Ebrahim gradually realised that his father’s terrorist ideals weren't representative of what most Muslims believe, and his moderate mother was instrumental in "chipping away" at this, he said.
Being badly bullied as a child also inspired him to step away from his father’s teachings: “I knew so vividly what it was like to be victimised by people, particularly because of the bullying. It made me realise that’s not a way I ever wanted to make anyone feel.”
Ebrahim later rejected Islam entirely – but insists his father’s actions “had little to do with the reason I left religion.”
“For me it was simply being unable to reconcile religion with human history," he explained. "People always said that science would disprove relation but I always thought that it was history that would do that. If you look at 10,000 years of human history, you can see the start of these major religions. [My rejection of religion] was lack of belief in an omnipotent being.”
Ebrahim thinks it can be unfair to characterise different religions as having specific “values”.
“I’ve known people who were willing to go to brutal lengths for their version of Islam, and I’ve known lesbians with tattoos that were also Muslim. I think that trying to ascribe any particular value to a religion is extremely difficult,” he said.
He added that one thing he had "held on to" from Islam was "my mother's version of the religion – that in order to make the world a better place, it had to start with you.”
Archbishop Tutu said that belief of some form or other moves us all: “I don’t think that any one of us has a life that is not punctured by beliefs, even when we do not necessarily acknowledge them.”
That man who had lowered his hat to his mother in South Africa was Trevor Huddleston, an English Anglican bishop and anti-Apartheid activist who became an inspiration. “South Africa was saved form a racial bloodbath in part because of his influence," the Archbishop said.
He added that, growing up in a ghetto in South Africa, he often wondered whether he was insignificant or “God’s stepchild.”
His father also shaped his passionated belief in equality. The Archbishop recalled his horror when he and his father – respected in the black community because he was a headmaster of a school – went into a shop, where a young white woman referred to his father using the derogatory term “boy”.
“I wondered how my father felt," he said. "And then, as if God wanted me to experience something similar, we went to London where I studied at Kings College London, where almost all of my daughter’s friends were white kids.”
Then, when the family had later returned to South Africa, Archbishop Tutu had to tell his daughter that she was not allowed to play in a playground reserved only for white children. "I realised, how do you tell your child that you are a child, but you are not a child quite like those other children?” he asked.
The Archbishop and Ebrahim were speaking at the Skoll World Forum, which aims to find solutions to world problems through social entrepreneurship.
The event's host, Stephan Chambers, chairman of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford, welcomed the audience by saying that belief is “the glue that unites people around ideas, it’s the fuel for movements.”