Political commentator Sohrab Ahmari’s new memoir, From Fire, by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith (Ignatius Press, 2019), echoes the words of St. Augustine: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee.” Ahmari now rests in the Catholic Church, after a journey that began in Tehran, Iran, under the repressive Ayatollah Khomeini regime.
At 13, in 1998, Ahmari and his mother immigrated to Utah, where he was disappointed that America was not as hedonistic, individualistic or as secular as he had imagined. Two decades of disillusionment in Marxism and postmodern ideologies finally led him to Jesus Christ. He became Catholic in 2016. Ahmari is the op-ed editor of The New York Post and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald. He previously worked as a columnist and editor with The Wall Street Journal in New York and London.
Ahmari spoke in mid-March with Register correspondent Patti Armstrong about his journey to the Church, not from Islam, “whose religion had left only faint imprints on my soul,” but from atheism and relativism.
How would you describe your relationship with God as a young boy in Iran?
I had a basic natural belief that every human being has a longing for God that was expressed in a very simple way. I turned to this very nondenominational God in the sky to ask for things.
Your parents divorced, yet “played house” for seven years, with your dad spending a few days each week in your home. Your parents and their friends drank alcohol and did not follow sharia (Islamic) law, often bribing officials. Did this duplicity lead to your cynicism of religion?
Yes, the double life at home and outside the home, of hypocrisy living under an Islamic state, made me conclude that religion was nothing more than hypocrisy.
By age 18, you were a card-carrying communist. Why were you eventually turned off by Marxism?
I was turned off by the fact that the orthodox or classical Marxists are incredibly dour and have such blinders about how they see the world, and every event is filtered through a Marxist canon. There are all sorts of experiences they cannot account for and are not even interested in because class struggle and how a society produces things is all they care about. Unfortunately, I didn’t look to see what the people who had debunked Marxism had to say. Instead, I thought, “Okay, what came after Marxism must be the truth.”
If you could speak to the young man that you were two decades ago, what would you tell him?
I wouldn’t have said: “Believe in God because it’s true.” What I would have said is: “Before you discard the classical tradition — and that includes, obviously, the Bible, but also Aristotle and, late classical, Augustine — before you think you’ve triumphed over these things and therefore you don’t even need to bother reading them because, of course, they’re wrong and they’re old, just open it up and see if it speaks to you.” I wish that’s what I would have done. I wish that’s what young people today would do.
You had many mornings of regret following nights of drunkenness when you prayed to God, only to later feel silly and again dismiss such a possibility. What did you pray?
I still knew a few Quranic prayers. Sometimes I would recite those. Sometimes I would pray: “God help me; wipe this away.”
Eventually, I concluded that that voice of the conscience is the imprint of a supreme being. It’s the same voice that says to Adam, “Where are you?” It’s the same voice that tells Cain, “What have you done?” That same voice resounds in every heart: “What have you done?” — every person except Our Lady, of course.
You came to admire Christianity and respect Catholicism, often visiting churches, but for so long “preferred to have God without God.” What held you back?
St. Augustine’s Confessions is full of “not yet.” That was the case with me. I think that is a universal experience, in terms of our relationship with God. We negotiate with him all the time, like, “Get me out of this pinch.” But when it passes, we say to him: “Not yet.”
You credited Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI with your encounter with Jesus and coming to understand that “the fullest freedom is through the cross.” Please explain that.
If you agree that there is a God, then your first and last duty and thing you should most want to do is get to know him. It so happens that he is a cruciform God. He is a God who takes on weakness and humiliation, so if knowing God is freedom, then freedom is also knowing the cross, and hugging it and holding fast to it.
Why was it so easy for you to accept the Catholic devotion to the Blessed Mother?
Because she’s so lovable, first of all. She is the same woman who nourished Jesus and later stood by him in anguish at the foot of the cross. It is a matter of the heart.
And this is an incarnational faith. You can’t say, like our Protestant brothers and sisters do, “Well, there was Mary, and then Jesus was born, and then she doesn’t matter anymore.” That doesn’t make sense.
This woman bore God in her womb, and that is astonishing. If you believe that, then you have to grapple with the fact that she is our link to the Incarnation. It’s through the free consent of Mary that the history of man is rewritten and takes a different course than it had been on.
Does the cultural trend in the U.S. away from God and toward socialism concern you?
Not just toward socialism, but toward a whole range of substitute religions that go under names like “wellness” and “self-care,” not to mention outright re-paganization.
Have the sexual scandals in the Church caused you any second thoughts?
No. I joined the Church with eyes wide-open and with a keen sense of Christian anthropology, which is anything but naive.
A divinely instituted Church can be peopled with fallen, sinful men, and as I’ve said before: If it weren’t for grace, we could all be McCarricks; we could all be cruel concentration-camp guards.
As a writer for a secular publication, has becoming Catholic changed anything for you at work?
Not at all. I’m lucky to work for a media company — News Corp — that takes the voice of faith seriously, and many of my colleagues are Catholics themselves, who’ve been nothing but welcoming.
In the wider public square, of course, there’s plenty of disagreeableness directed at my Catholicism, but that only energizes me!
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.