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How This Neoconservative Found the Catholic Church

From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith, Sohrab Ahmari, Ignatius Press, 240 pages [1]

There is a famous Persian proverb, Sokuni be-dast ar ey by sabât, ke bar sang-e ġaltân na-ruyad nabât, which translates to something close to “a rolling stone gathers no moss.” As a conservative and traditionalist Catholic, I find that sentiment quite appealing and true to life. Yet there are exceptions, among them the Iranian-American Sohrab Ahmari. The popular writer at Commentary and former editorialist at The Wall Street Journal has rolled quite quickly in his relatively short life, from Shia Islam to Nietzschean nihilism, from Marxism to neoconservativism. Now, in his spiritual biography, From Fire by Water [1], Ahmari charts his intellectual travels into Catholicism, to which he converted in 2016. For the reading list alone, Ahmari’s apologia is a valuable resource for understanding the intellectual evolution of the West and how traditional religious belief still offers the best answers to man’s quest for truth.

Ahmari was born into a middle-class family in Tehran several years after the 1979 revolution. Many members of his family, including his father and mother, were more aesthetes than pious Muslims. All the same, much of his upbringing—especially that which occurred in the country’s public school system—was set in the larger context of the aggressive Shiism of post-revolution Iran. Yet Ahmari developed a cynicism towards Islam reminiscent of his bohemian father, who drank alcohol and watched Western movies behind closed doors. Of Iran, Ahmari writes, “when it wasn’t burning with ideological rage, it mainly offered mournful nostalgia. Those were its default modes, rage and nostalgia. I desired something more.”

As he grew older, Ahmari’s concerns with Islam increasingly focused on its antagonism towards free will and reason. He explains: “My turn away from God had something to do as well with the nature of the Islam of Khomeini and his followers, a religion that never proposes but only imposes, and that by the sword or the suicide bomber…. In broad swaths of the Islamic world, the religion of Muhammad is synonymous with law and political dominion without love or mercy…. There is little room for the individual conscience and free will, for the human heart, for reason and intellect.”

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Indeed, as I’ve noted in two recent [2] articles [3] on Islam, the dominant streams of the religion have always had difficulty reconciling their beliefs—and certainly the nature and development of the Quran—with public rational discourse or academic scholarship. If one considers a map of the world where apostasy laws are in effect [4], it largely matches where Islam is the dominant religion. Radical Islamism as a distortion of a peaceable, rational Islam, Ahmari writes, is “little more than a polite myth.”

After Ahmari’s parents divorced, he and his mother immigrated to Utah when he was 13 years old. It was quite the culture shock—in part because he found many Americans far less intellectually curious and far more conformist than he had imagined, but also because it involved shifting from the Persian bourgeoisie to living in a trailer park. As an Iranian in a part of the country that was predominantly white, it was always going to be an uphill battle to be socially accepted. But Ahmari’s fervent intellectualism added to this isolation. Though this was also perhaps a blessing in disguise, as he began devouring the kinds of books most Americans know they should read but never do. “Reading the great books in one’s late teens is intoxicating,” he observes.

First on his list was Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which he consumed in a few days, barely stopping to eat or groom himself. Ahmari identified with the ubermensch, or “superman,” who exemplifies the evolutionary peak of the human person, defined by self-mastery, radical creativity, and an intense cynicism towards absolute morality. Though it would take a few years, Ahmari eventually came to see the errors of the German philosopher. “Today I consider most of Nietzsche’s ideas to be not merely wrong but positively sinister,” he says. All the same, as I’ve argued elsewhere at TAC [5], Nietzsche’s philosophy is at play across American culture, education, and politics. References to “empowerment,” to redefining morality according to man’s own needs (or whims), and to accomplishing our goals through force of will are all to varying degrees tinged with Nietzsche’s influence. It’s important that we be exposed to him and his ideas, even if he is deadly wrong.

The next major influence on the young thinker were existentialist writers (and communist sympathizers) Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. For Ahmari, this was a logical progression from Nietzsche, who “considered man to be his own moral measure, and…licensed an elite to designate new values and overthrow the old.” This was exactly what Marxism offered. “By the age of eighteen, I was quite literally a card-carrying Communist,” he writes. Ahmari fervently embraced the ideas of dialectical materialism, class struggle, and anti-capitalism. But, he acknowledges, “Marxism’s greatest attraction was its religious spirit,” its emphasis on a secular salvation, revolutionary justice that “would wipe away every tear.” Again, like Nietzsche, Americans need not embrace Sartre or Marx to see the need to read and understand them—especially when Marxism is such a dominant force at most U.S. universities [6]. One must understand the best attacks on conservatism and religious belief [7] in order to defend them.

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Anyone familiar with the philosophical traditions influencing the American academy [8] can probably guess what came after Marx for the young Ahmari: Jean-Francois Lyotard and Michel Foucault, the deconstructionists who tackle topics like “sex and gender, language and the unconscious, colonialism and postcolonialism, media and pop culture.” At this point, Ahmari defines his worldview as the following: “Man’s place in the world is unsettled; he is homeless. Capitalism’s pitiless destruction of older social forms, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Freud’s discovery of the unconscious—all these things had made it impossible to cling to any eternal or permanent truth about humanity…. Everything about people turned on historical conditions and social power dynamics.” According to these thinkers, man is repressed by society, which can be reduced to performative “language games.”

Yet Ahmari recognizes now that postmodernism’s analysis means there is “no standard left on which to base these various claims for justice.” It would take a number of life experiences, including two years doing Teach for America (TFA), to help Ahmari see the errors of his ways. While he halfheartedly sought to impress his Marxism and relativism on his students, another teacher imposed strict rules and procedures to guide learning. The latter had far more success. As Ahmari writes, “good teaching [is] at heart about order—order, in the teacher’s mind, about the lesson he was going to impart on a given day; order in the minds of students, who needed routine, regularity, and predictability from adults; and order in the sense that peace reigned in the classroom and those who disturbed it knew what to expect.” The TFA experience also convinced Ahmari of a fatal flaw in leftist ideology—people aren’t reducible to “language, race, class, and collective identities.” Anyone, and everyone, regardless of circumstances, can choose to be virtuous, to cultivate the good in themselves and society.

It was around this time that Ahmari began reading anti-communist literature that helped persuade him that rather than being an oppressor, the kinds of absolute moral laws propagated by the Judeo-Christian tradition were actually “a bulwark against totalitarianism.” He adds: “The God who revealed himself in the moral law, and who condescended to be scourged and crucified by his creation—this God was a liberator.” In time, he came to recognize that the most praiseworthy elements of Western civilization cannot be understood apart from the religious traditions that brought them into being. These traditions view man as having inherent dignity and possessing certain inalienable rights. Thus did Ahmari begin to “make peace with American society,” and develop into a popular neoconservative writer.

Soon he was reading the likes of political theorist Leo Strauss, biblical scholar Robert Altar, popular Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, the Church Father Augustine, great Catholic convert John Henry Newman, and the great scholar/theologian/pope Joseph Ratzinger. Ahmari is not the only one whose reading of Augustine led him into the Church—Washington Post [9] columnist Elizabeth Bruenig [9] trod a similar path. But perhaps what’s most consistent amid Ahmari’s intellectual journey from Islam through various forms of post-Enlightenment ideology and ultimately into Catholicism is his search not only for truth but freedom. It was the deeper, more authentic vision of freedom in Christianity that spurred Ahmari towards a greater conception of the world and the human person. “True freedom, Benedict [XVI] taught, was something else. It was ‘freedom in the service of the good,’ freedom that allowed ‘itself to be led by the Spirit of God.’”

It is this same search for freedom that underpins the conservative project to which Ahmari now contributes—albeit, to my chagrin, of a more neoconservative variety. Yet any conservatism that perceives man’s flourishing as intimately linked to his creator is one worth lauding.

Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "How This Neoconservative Found the Catholic Church"

#1 Comment By mohammad On January 16, 2019 @ 4:09 am

This is interesting: he was from a non-pious family in Iran, and he moved to the USA when he was 13, so he has NEVER been exposed to anything of traditional Islam or its myriads of spiritual possibilities, but he is so sure that “Radical Islamism as a distortion of a peaceable, rational Islam is little more than a polite myth.”

Let me predict: he will get soon tired of Catholicism and either moves to another thing, or he will become a lukewarm Catholic, but his neoconservativism will remain intact(though it might get a slightly different color, depending on the situation)

#2 Comment By mohammad On January 16, 2019 @ 4:13 am

And when you have changed your opinions so much in such a short span of time, wouldn’t it be better to have a little bit of humility in expressing one’s opinions? Though humility is completely off the map for neoconservatives (except some fake David-Brooks-type)

#3 Comment By mrscracker On January 16, 2019 @ 9:37 am

“…it involved shifting from the Persian bourgeoisie to living in a trailer park. As an Iranian in a part of the country that was predominantly white, it was always going to be an uphill battle to be socially accepted.”

*************

If his family had picked a trailer park in South Louisiana they’d have fit right in. From the photo you provided, Mr. Ahmari could belong to any number of Cajun families we know.
I’ve never thought of Iranians as not being “white.”
🙂

#4 Comment By Adam T On January 16, 2019 @ 11:25 am

“Reading Sohrab Ahmari’s fascinating journey out of Islam, through leftism, and into Catholicism.”

This could very well read: Reading John Do fascinating journey out of Catholicism,through rightism, and into Islam.
There is nothing fascinating about either one.

#5 Comment By Jon On January 16, 2019 @ 12:51 pm

To oppose the moral responsibility of the individual to that of a group norm formed by the prejudice that ethics is formed and shaped and rooted within a cosmological context has very negative implications.

For one thing, how can one be assured that goodness has an empyrean basis? Can this presumption lead to Job’s error of divining the Ultimate’s will in terms of a formula? Is there not the error or equating divine thought and intentions with what humanity through its religions devise? Is one therefore risking the loss of respect and awe for the Mysterium Tremendum by tossing it away for a religious code which asserts correspondence with heavenly accord?

Also the demands of the ecclesia to conform to its catechism that is, to its protocols justified by its alleged correspondence with Heaven harnesses the individual will to that of the group thereby fostering hypocrisy and the abuse of sacerdotal authority without recompense. The individual thus tethered to church canon no longer operates from a position of freedom to choose the good for itself.

This is the abyss between my grasp of the human spirit and the conformism which permeates Mr. Chalk’s writing and possibly the current views of Mr. Ahmari. Nietzsche’s ubermensch is not about superiority or dominance just as his will to power has little to do with political hegemony. It is about authentic being. How does one lead the authentic life via conformism to external imposed rules? How can one live authentically without the radical (at the root) self-reflection which dogmatism disallows? And what kind of a world is created when authentic being is thus prohibited?

#6 Comment By Srk On January 16, 2019 @ 1:26 pm

This guy has a lot of mental issues that needs to be worked out. Hopefully with his new found Catholicism he won’t be too keen on formulating policies to bomb and sanction Muslim countries

#7 Comment By B Gray On January 16, 2019 @ 1:44 pm

He’s young enough to have a few more worldview-changing epiphanies. There are enough religions and political ideologies to keep the ungrounded busy shapeshifting for centuries.

#8 Comment By hd On January 16, 2019 @ 2:20 pm

Here is a tip you will dislike and may ignore: The Muslim converts to Christianity are always fake. Most of them are deeply atheist or otherwise faithless people to begin with, and they never change. Especially Iranian intellectuals have generally turned secular and they have minimal interest in reverting back to any faith. Sure, they can lend their fervent anti-religious views to neoconservatives or any other anti-Islamic group, but at the end they closely resemble secular Jews.

#9 Comment By Russell On January 16, 2019 @ 4:12 pm

What ever became of Stephen Schwartz, the Standard’s resident Sufi Neocon?

#10 Comment By David Hayden On January 16, 2019 @ 4:54 pm

hd, “The Muslim converts to Christianity are always fake…and they never change.” Do you actually know that to be true?

#11 Comment By David Hayden On January 16, 2019 @ 4:58 pm

hd, “The Muslim converts to Christianity are always fake…and they never change.” Do you actually know that to be true?

#12 Comment By GaryH On January 17, 2019 @ 7:13 am

Of post Khomeini Iran: “Those were its default modes, rage and nostalgia.”

Isn’t that about the default modes to be found across not merely England and the US but the entire English-speaking world? As well as Europe, which is largely controlled by Anglo-Saxon norms, values, prejudices?

#13 Comment By GaryH On January 17, 2019 @ 7:21 am

hd says:
January 16, 2019 at 2:20 pm
Here is a tip you will dislike and may ignore: The Muslim converts to Christianity are always fake. Most of them are deeply atheist or otherwise faithless people to begin with, and they never change. Especially Iranian intellectuals have generally turned secular and they have minimal interest in reverting back to any faith. Sure, they can lend their fervent anti-religious views to neoconservatives or any other anti-Islamic group, but at the end they closely resemble secular Jews.”

You may well have a point. But I think I should stress that neocons are not ‘anti-Islamic.’ Most neocons love Saudi Arabia these days. Almost all neocons if given the choice of living either in a Moslem country or a pre-Modern Catholic country would choose Islam and Moslems. Part of that is racial and ethnic: Arabs are Semites, and Islam is, therefore, like Rabbinic, Talmudic Judaism, an anti-Christ religion that exudes Semitic culture.

#14 Comment By GaryH On January 17, 2019 @ 7:43 am

Chalk asserts, correctly I believe, that Nietzsche is a major influence across American and its political and spiritual landscape. Then he writes, “The next major influence on the young thinker were existentialist writers (and communist sympathizers) Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. For Ahmari, this was a logical progression from Nietzsche, who “considered man to be his own moral measure, and…licensed an elite to designate new values and overthrow the old.”

That I find particularly interesting because I have been watching Leah Remini’s shows about Scientology. L. Ron Hubbard, an atheist from a fairly typical middle class/working class WASP background, was proclaiming by the early 1950s that his ideas would free man to solve his own problems.

Scientology, it seems to me, is a rather natural product of totally secularized WASP culture meeting Nietzsche, and Hegel, and then setting out to save the world, which only it can do, and do only by its bureaucratic studies. Which are reminiscent of Orthodox Rabbinical study, with Modern agnostic Germanic precisian making it wildly seductive to people – almost all of them Caucasians – mostly of WASP, German, Scandinavian and Jewish heritage – who need structure and have refused Christ and the historical and cultural ties of Christendom.

You’ve got to stand for something worthwhile, or you’ll fall for anything. And perhaps become a self-righteous monster.