Magazine | April 8, 2019, Issue

Sohrab Ahmari’s Road to Catholicism

St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, March 20, 2019 (Vatican Media via Reuters)
From Fire, by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith, by Sohrab Ahmari (Ignatius, 240 pp., $22.95)

Religious faith is difficult to justify to those who don’t have it. Perhaps that’s why many who do have it (whatever “it” is) but who live and work around those who do not scarcely try. Among those who do try are those strange and mystifying people: converts.

By “convert” I do not mean the person who changes his or her religion for some practical reason — to appease a spouse, or to satisfy this or that aesthetic preference — but rather the person who claims to have encountered a personal God and to have developed a relationship with Him that has so altered his life and character that even his nonreligious friends are struck by the transformation. Such conversion stories are as dramatic as they are distinct. And the story of Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian-American journalist and opinion editor of the New York Post, is no exception. 

In his mid thirties, Ahmari is rather young to be writing a memoir. But spiritual memoir is a category of its own; after all, St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s famous Story of a Soul was published after her death at only 24. Ahmari’s memoir is of general interest, too: He has so far led an unusually interesting life. His career as a journalist spans three continents — Asia, North America, and Europe. And his intellectual formation has been influenced by at least three worldviews — Shiite Islam, Communism, and then, via a mysterious leap of faith, Roman Catholicism. 

Anyone born in Iran after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when the shah’s monarchy was overthrown and replaced by an Islamic “republic” in the form of a totalitarian theocracy, grew up in perilous times. Ahmari notes that many Iranians, not least his own grandfather, view the United States and other Western countries as illicit aggressors. His grandfather espoused “a paranoid history of the world, in which Iranians or Muslims had invented everything that was worthwhile, only to have their ideas and resources pillaged by the West.”

Ahmari has a different view, one he seems to have intuited even in childhood, when he secretly cherished Star Wars memorabilia and GI Joe action figures. Now Ahmari considers the reign of the autocratic shah to have been “benign,” lauds the West as the home of freedom (he immigrated to the U.S. with his mother at the age of 13), and harbors deep distrust of what he considers to be the necessarily political nature of Islamic theology, which leaves “little room for the individual conscience and free will, for the human heart, for reason and intellect.”

Ahmari recalls the formal Shiite education of his childhood: the uncompromising rule of sharia law, a fierce hostility toward Sunni Muslims, the gulf between his family’s religious apathy at home and their mandated religious observance in public, the scrutiny of the morality police. He began to “curse God” privately, just to see what would happen (as far as he could tell, nothing much did). He writes:

Living in an Islamic theocracy — where God appears in the form of floggings and judicial amputations, scowling ayatollahs and secret police — has a way of souring one on things divine. Years later, I read a wise young Iranian dissident who argued that if the Islamic Republic collapsed one day it would leave behind the world’s largest community of atheists. This is a perfectly plausible theory.

By the time he and his mother settled in America, Ahmari was a budding atheist. Like many teenagers, he began his search for truth in rebellion. Arriving in Utah, he found America to be in some ways an improvement on Iran yet in other ways a disappointment. While his mother, who had separated from his father in Iran, struggled to put food on the table and a roof over their heads (settling for a mobile home), he began his American education.

His contrarian streak had only strengthened. By his teenage years he was reading Sartre, Camus, and Nietzsche, responding to their ideas with half-baked thoughts and credulous zeal: “This book is so right!” “Isn’t it just so!” Soon he turned his attention to Communism. Though he recognized the evil of Stalin, he admired Trotsky. He found Marx’s theory of class struggle to be compelling, and by the age of 18 he was a “card-carrying Communist.”

The irony that Ahmari, having been liberated from a repressive state and welcomed to one of the freest countries in the world, became besotted with Marxism is not lost on him. “I drove my new Honda Civic to Salt Lake, where I was to meet the Worker’s Alliance crew,” he writes. “I had purchased the car with earnings from a part-time market research job.”

Of course, there is nothing particularly remarkable about a youthful fling with bad ideas. After all, at college, who doesn’t try to match his beliefs to his lifestyle rather than the other way around? Drinking, drugs, hookups — all are permissible, if not worthwhile. All very convenient. And all a bit dull. What is far more interesting is how deep-rooted Ahmari’s conscience and wide-searching his intellectual curiosity were even in this youthful stage.

As Ahmari details, the primary attraction of Marxism, much like that of today’s identity politics, is the same as that of religion itself: All offer a structure of meaning, an anthropology of the human person, and a means to salvation. In this sense, such ideologies are but secular religions. Under Communism, humanity is not separated into sheep and goats but into oppressed and oppressors. The individual is not a sinner betrayed by his own will and redeemed through Christ, but a saint betrayed by the powerful and saved through revolution and redistribution. While Christianity calls for the voluntary transformation of the individual, Communism seeks the involuntary transformation of the collective. The former seeks to persuade, the latter to impose.

Over time, partly by interacting with believers, Ahmari’s anti-theism mellowed into atheism, his atheism into agnosticism, and finally his agnosticism was transformed into a belief in the person and teachings of Jesus Christ and in his “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”

As an ambitious London-based journalist for the Wall Street Journal, Ahmari reported on an Afghan smuggling ring in Istanbul, where he began to see the abuse of human rights as irrefutable evidence of the reality of sin — and, more, as a reflection “in externalized and concentrated form [of] my own miserable spiritual state.” In this regard, the key to Ahmari’s conversion is, presumably, the key to most conversions: humility.

In some parts of the book it is unclear whom, exactly, Ahmari is writing for. Is this memoir also intended as apologetics, like C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity? Is it a mission statement for the rest of his life? A confession like that of his confirmation saint, Augustine? Some sections would interest a general reader — indeed, anyone who appreciates eloquent prose and a compelling story — while others make sense only in a spiritual context. But if the jump between nonbelief and belief is jarring, it is inevitably so. 

In his essay “Why I Am a Catholic,” G. K. Chesterton writes that, while he “might treat the matter personally” and describe his own conversion, he has a “strong feeling that this method makes the business look much smaller than it really is.” This seems right. The reason Chesteron was a Catholic involved ten thousand reasons, which all merged into one earth-shattering belief: that Catholicism was true. That, I presume, is the same for Ahmari. And that, I suppose, is what’s meant by faith.

This article appears as “A Road to Rome
” in the April 8, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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