From Fire, by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith (Sohrab Ahmari)

This is not a Muslim conversion memoir. Yes, Islam shows up quite a bit in the discussion, as it must in any book that discusses cultures in the Middle East. But Sohrab Ahmari’s conversion was from atheist materialism, the religion of Marx, Nietzsche, and Foucault, to Christianity. True, he had converted to that new religion as a teenager, earlier abandoning formal observance of an inculcated Shiite Islam. So Islam, the politics of Islam, and politics in general do show up here. Mostly, though, this book is simply a well-written and compelling personal narrative of the author’s search for, and finding of, the triune God, and adopting His worship in the form embodied in the Roman Catholic Church.

Ahmari, a prominent newspaper editor who has worked for, among other publications, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, is quite well known in journalistic circles. He gained extra prominence through how he announced that he was converting—on Twitter, in July of 2016, after an elderly French priest, Father Jacques Hamel, was murdered by two Muslims, who killed him with a knife while he was celebrating Mass. Ahmari, in retrospect, regrets this method of announcement, since given the limitations of Twitter, the story that was picked up and spread around the world was that a “Muslim writer” was converting, and Ahmari was by this time most definitely not Muslim. “I didn’t convert publicly to score a point for Team Jesus against Team Muhammad, but that was how some were interpreting my decision.” Still, that’s water under the bridge, and Ahmari has written From Fire, by Water to illuminate why he converted.

That he’s well connected helped him get his story out. Archbishop Charles Chaput, of whom I am a big fan since he is one of the few hierarchs of the Roman Church willing to actually fight for actual Roman Catholicism, wrote a brief forward. The book itself isn’t very long, but Ahmari does an outstanding job of drawing people and times, with never a wasted or ill-chosen word.

He begins by evoking his youth in Tehran, in the 1990s, including the milieu and his family. The milieu, Khomeini’s Iran, was one of corrupt ideological rigidity, pervaded with the apocalyptic fatalism so characteristic of Shiite Islam. As to his family, his father was one of those types common among modern liberals of every culture—an undisciplined, egotistical, self-centered man, full of baseless pride, and not only lacking in, but affirmatively rejecting, all virtues as bourgeois and outdated, among them loyalty, discipline, industriousness, honor, and courage. No surprise, his father rejected religion, casting himself as a cut-rate Holden Caulfield (the protagonist of one of the stupidest books of the twentieth century). His mother was a paler version of the same; Ahmari has much less to say about her, so she is not a vividly drawn character. His parents divorced when Ahmari was quite young, although they hid this from their son, and his father stayed in his life until Ahmari departed for the United States in 1998.

Ahmari’s maternal grandparents, in whose home he lived, were also very important to his formation. They were upper-class Iranians who were enthusiastic for the 1979 revolution, then were surprised at the totalitarian nature of the new regime. So they retreated into their home, where his grandfather spent his days exemplifying the common Muslim trait of an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the West, “transcribing thousand-year-old Persian manuscripts . . . to prove, once and for all, that Iranians had originated all the pivotal scientific insights that the Western usurpers claimed for themselves.”

None of this is to say Ahmari’s childhood was unhappy; quite the contrary—although, as with most childhoods, that may have more to do with the author’s personality and outlook than the substance of his circumstances. As Ahmari notes, “All Iranians had to perfect the art of living double lives in those days. Parents had to be especially cautious.” If they were not, the state might punish the parents when their unacceptable beliefs were revealed by the children. (This is characteristic of all totalitarian states, and is becoming a problem for American conservatives as well, though here the punishing entity is less the state than employers and schools.) Still, Ahmari watched banned Western movies; his parents and their friends drank alcohol; and in general, the family led a double life, not unlike, no doubt, many similar Iranian families of the time, “intellectuals,” as they called themselves. To the extent the family had any religion, it was, as Ahmari incisively relates, “a kind of liberal sentimental ecumenism.” What Ahmari wanted to be, as he grew up, was an “intellectual,” too. So, as a teenager, he became that most annoying of caricatures—the atheist teenager convinced of his own unique insight and daring. He baited his Quran teachers at school, but not enough to get himself into real trouble, or his parents, who anyway were hard to punish, since they lived in a twilight zone, not dependent on state favor to make a living.

This might have led him to a marginal life like his father, who was an architect but could not openly practice since he had failed to register for the draft as a young man. But what was to become of Ahmari was irrevocably altered when he and his mother left for America. They moved to Utah, helped by an uncle, and to poverty. Ahmari did not fit in—an atheist uninterested in Mormons or sports, and unfamiliar with how he was expected to act around girls, and therefore, like Seyyid Qutb, initially very shocked by loose American morals. Qutb’s reaction led to him endorsing a blend of Leninism and updated Kharijite Islam, starting the Muslim Brotherhood, and getting hanged by Nasser; Ahmari’s took him in the opposite direction. Nietzsche became his new god. Ahmari decided he would fight against both the “liberal-egalitarian last men” and the source of their weakness, Christianity. (Nowadays he might be attracted by the silly thought of the reactionary Dark Enlightenment, who though they don’t usually acknowledge their debt to Nietzsche, often take the same tack.) This led to majoring in philosophy in college, where he preened himself (by his own account—he doesn’t spare himself much in this book) by writing “shallow nonsense,” adopted existentialism, and became a “quite literally, a card-carrying Communist,” when he was eighteen.

Ahmari joined up with a Trotskyite organization (buying into the myth that Trotsky was, as Ahmari’s mother believed, “the one good guy in the whole sordid business”). Ideological struggle was the order of the day; such things as human charity merely perpetuated the system, thus Ahmari and his compatriots embodied the old joke about Communists loving humanity, just not individual human beings. Still, he had Mormon roommates, who left the Bible out to read, something that intrigued him when he picked it up. After college, he joined Teach for America, where he met men and women wholly committed to improving education—mostly leftist, true, but with some people who thought for themselves and rejected ideological compulsion analogous to that of the Islamic Republic, such as “diversity” training. He also made a new friend, an Israeli-American, who showed to Ahmari the importance of giving order to troubled students, emphasizing character and virtue as the antidote to poverty, not leftist nostrums. This began to “disabuse me of my leftist certainties,” and Ahmari began to read more broadly, including authors such as Václav Havel, and Arthur Koestler, in Darkness at Noon.

After graduating, Ahmari took a teaching job in Salem, near Boston (yes, that Salem, though he doesn’t mention the witches). Like many young men, he took to drinking and partying too much, along with other forms of roughly-limned debauchery. I have not read Augustine’s Confessions, but the narrative is roughly parallel, with a strong element of “Lord, make me pure, but not yet.” Ahmari led this life, which while not edifying hardly sounds like the worst life of sin ever, but did things like stopping in a church after a weekend of shame, feeling overcome by the Mass and spiritual longing, and talking to a priest, but then falling back into his old ways again. Ahmari seems very introspective about his path, and perhaps beats himself up too much. For the reader, though, the introspection is informative, including Ahmari’s thoughts on why he did not return to the religion of his birth—both because “the Islamic Republic had ruined Islam for me,” and because “Islam was much more than a Hejazi cult of conquest . . . but it was that, too.”

He went to law school in 2009 (the traditional choice for smart people who don’t know what else to do). By this point Ahmari, though still putatively atheist, seems to have become in politics what amounts to a classical liberal. He also started his public writing career, at the same time as Iran’s failed Green Revolution—and began reading Leo Strauss, a far cry from Leon Trotsky. So instead of practicing as a lawyer, in 2012 he began working for the Wall Street Journal. Like Strauss, Ahmari was now highly respectful of Christianity, not because it was true, rather because it was the magnificent foundation of the West. But from Strauss, Ahmari took that relativism was bad, whether in political thought or religious thought, and that Truth was a legitimate goal. At the same time, from Leon Kass, Ahmari absorbed the key distinction between science and scientism, and that religious belief did not conflict with the former. Other readings, such as Robert Alter’s translation of the Pentateuch, and Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, were also influential in Ahmari’s journey.

Despite making Christian friends in London, and attending Anglican and other services, “Evangelical Protestantism, for all its Spirit-infused hand raising and arm swaying, struck me as profoundly abstract.” And it, like all Protestantism, lacks a source of authority. Ahmari was also attracted by the seeming unchangeability of the Roman Church, that it “didn’t need to bend herself to the vacuous fads” of the time. (Ahmari ignores, with a convert’s modesty and deference, that Pope Francis is very busy doing exactly that.) So he came to the Brompton Oratory and asked a priest for instruction, and was received into the Catholic Church at the end of 2016.

In other words, Ahmari is the type of person to whom the awe-inspiring intellectual rigor of Roman Catholicism appeals. This is true of most or all Roman Catholic converts, and I grasp it fully, myself growing up a very well-informed Roman Catholic, and finding that its rational delineation of the answers to all questions resonates with my own grid-like approach to life, where everything fits in its place, or if it does not, its misplacement is obvious. This approach has its limitations, which is why I and my family are about to be received into the Orthodox Church, but Ahmari’s sincerity and humility is compelling.

At this point, finishing the book, I had one question, and a set of thoughts about Islam in the modern world. My question is where does Ahmari’s wife, whom he met in 2012 and married in 2014, fit in? He mentions her, in glowing terms, but nowhere are we told whether she has accompanied him on his spiritual journey. Probably this is just to maintain her privacy, but the reader is curious, and if she is not following him on the journey, wonders how that might have affected the two of them, and how he might be dealing with any resulting problems.

My thoughts about Islam’s role are more complex. Since Christianity is the enemy of the moral relativism and nihilism from which Ahmari converted, as also is Islam, this brings up what may be an important question in the wars to come—what is, and what can be, the relationship between Christianity and Islam? (Naturally, here I mean real Christianity, not insipid megachurch Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is part of the problem.) As I have noted before, destroying the grip of modernity, both the organized Left and the more amorphous materialism and relativism against which Ahmari reacted, isn’t enough. To renew the society of the West, we will have to remake the underlying culture, which has become largely rotten, even aside from the dominance of the Left. True, it’s the dominance of the Left that has largely ruined it (though simple wealth and the wheel of Time may also have much to do with it), but as when a boulder kills the grass, removing the boulder doesn’t mean fresh grass grows—you may just get weeds. Logically, Islam should be an ally in the wars to come and in the subsequent rebuilding of society. In their objection to liquid modernity, to the evils of the Left, to the oppression of so-called liberal democracy that really means forced conformity and subjection to the evil doctrines of the Left, Muslims agree with Christians. They share the same moral beliefs that are anathema to our rulers, and which are increasingly persecuted by our rulers, by denial of employment, social mobbing, and directed violence. Yet no alliance has arisen, for which I can think of three possible explanations.

One is that that there are simply not that many Muslims in America. True, but all people with strong opinions and beliefs punch above their weight in the public sphere, so that doesn’t really seem like it’s the answer. A second is that Muslims are turned off by hostility to Muslims evinced by many Christians, especially since the massive global wave of Muslim terror over the past twenty years. This is more plausible, because it’s true that a lot of Christians express such hostility. The problem is that some of that hostility is uneducated bigotry, and some of it is wholly justified by both history and Muslim theology, which is triumphalist and necessarily requires subjugation of all non-Muslims, thus leading to the well-known phenomenon of Islam’s bloody borders. Therefore, mutual hostility will always exist. A third is that many Muslims, especially those who claim to represent the “Muslim community,” have tasted the sweetness of the odious doctrine of intersectionality, wherein groups are rated as deserving based on their supposed oppression, and for not-very-intelligent reasons Muslims rank high. The Left offers them money and treats, at the expense of groups deemed to be oppressors (straight white males most of all, followed by straight white females, whose demonization will shortly bear poisoned fruit, but that is another topic). Everybody delights in being treated as an honored former victim now being exalted. Moreover, this offers an exemption for Muslims from persecution—any Christian who, for example, noted in his corporate workplace that gay “marriage” is a sin would be instantly fired, but not a Muslim, both because the Left sees him as oppressed and therefore virtuous, and because he can cry “victim” and receive an audience, whereas a Christian cannot.

These latter two differences drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims. In Europe, where most Muslims are far more triumphalist and endorse harsher (yet wholly mainstream) versions of Islam, cooperation between Christians and Muslims is impossible, and anyway outside of Hungary and Poland the Christians are desiccated. I don’t think that’s true of Muslims in America, and once Christians here realize that war against their enemies, metaphorical or actual, is the only possible solution to preventing their permanent violent suppression, allying with Muslims would seem like an obvious play. Whether Muslims would be receptive I don’t know; perhaps when the Left turns their fangs on them, stripping them of the immunity they have enjoyed so far and demanding they celebrate whatever sexual perversion is today’s flavor or also face the punishment meted out to Christians, it’ll become more likely. Certainly Muslims are willing to fight—in fact, as shown by recent British Muslim objections to the forced sexualization of schoolchildren and their conscription into advancing the homosexual agenda, they’re more willing to fight than Christians, no surprise since while too many Christians eagerly disown the awesome Crusades, no Muslim would ever disown the sword that Muhammad wielded against the enemies of Islam. We should draw our swords in unison; we can worry about later comity later.

What Ahmari would say to this, I have no idea. He’s still tweeting, in a measured manner, mostly along conservative, but not radically traditional, lines. But he’s a young man, and my bet is that a man of his unique background, and high talents, will find a place to use both background and talents in the troubled times looming ahead. And aside from these political concerns, his memoir is spiritually enriching. You can read it without worrying about swords.

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