[Editor’s Note: Sohrab Ahmari is an Iranian-American author who serves as the op-ed editor of the New York Post. In 2016, Ahmari was received into the Catholic Church, a conversion he recounts in his upcoming memoir, From Fire, By Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith. He spoke to Charles Camosy about his life and the reasons he joined the Catholic Church.]
Camosy: As a teenager living in Iran you came to the conclusion that there was no God. What sorts of ideas or experiences led you to this conclusion?
Ahmari: In the Iran of my childhood, “God” took the form of judicial amputations and floggings, scowling ayatollahs and secret police. God in the Islamic Republic was law and political dominion, and he offered no love or mercy. As I entered pubescence, I was first puzzled, then repelled by the double lives led by people under an Islamist regime. My parents, our friends and relatives — they all had to profess one set of values in public (to keep their heads, naturally) while they lived very different lives behind closed doors. If God required this hypocrisy, then I wanted nothing to do with him.
In addition to being an atheist you were also a Marxist at this time. Did you see a connection between the two?
The Marxism came later, in college, after my mother and I had immigrated to the United States. My renouncing of faith clearly didn’t put an end to my search for truth and meaning, and Marxism offered a totalistic understanding of the world — and a seemingly penetrating account of my own predicament, as a son of the Iranian upper middle class who had suddenly found himself poor, “fresh off the boat” and on the margins.
Then, too, there was a religious aspect to this godless ideology: the promise of the movement of society in a predetermined direction, culminating in a violent revolution that would settle all the accounts of the past and redeem all of history’s injustices. So I was still seeking after God, in a way, even when I professed Leninism and Trotskyism.
Your wonderful new book gives us the full version of the story, but can you give us the short version of what caused you to change your mind? What prompted your conversion to Catholicism?
Well, I don’t want to give away too many “spoilers.” But I had a number of astonishing and quite providential encounters with the Mass. These came while I still insisted that I was an unbeliever. But in moments of great personal crisis, I was for some reason drawn to church — and specifically to Catholic churches (in New York and Greater Boston). These experiences opened up my interior life and my imagination to the Catholic Church, even though I didn’t know the first thing about the supernatural action at the heart of the Mass. So I would say that the thing that played the decisive role in my conversion was our Lord’s Eucharistic presence. There was much else, of course, as readers will find out.
As you no doubt know, some cradle Catholics criticize Catholic converts for thinking of membership in the Church as an (often uncritical) assent to a set of propositions–rather than, say, being welcomed as a new member of a family with lots of diversity and often hard differences. How do you react to such criticism?
You know, I think there is something to these criticisms. And it’s an especially dangerous temptation among writers and intellectuals who convert. I’m ashamed when I think back to my period of instruction and first few months as a baptized and confirmed Catholic, when I thought that, having read some important books and memorized a few of the necessary prayers in Latin, I could pronounce with authority on ecclesial debates. What vanity! It’s only now, more than two years since I was received, that I’m beginning to understand what being part of that great family — reaching across heaven, earth and purgatory, with Christ as our head — is all about. All that said, I still recoil when some cradle Catholics dismiss and even mock intellectual converts merely on account of their being converts. That’s a patently anti-Gospel attitude.
My work is very much geared toward building bridges across difference, but honoring that difference in the process of dialogue. Given your unique background, I wonder if you think there can be cooperation between serious Muslims and serious Christians in Western secular cultures when it comes to carving out a space for religious practices? As a bioethicist, I’m particularly concerned with religious freedom for health care institutions and individual practitioners.
Yes, of course. I look with great admiration to someone like Professor Robert George of Princeton, who is especially adept at uniting diverse people of faith to fight for shared interests in religious liberty and bioethics. But you are right to emphasize seriousness, and to me that also means recognizing the limits of such dialogue and staying true to ourselves as Roman Catholics.
The encounter between Islam and the West is a fraught one, and Catholics have a crucial role to play in negotiating that encounter. The Church has far more experience with Islam than all the various Protestant denominations, a dialogue carried out sometimes by scholars and sometimes at the edge of the sword. Like the French philosopher Pierre Manent, I’ve come to believe that relations between Islam and the West, and between native majorities and Muslims residing in the West’s geographic boundaries, will be eased when Western societies come to honor the Christian mark that distinguishes the West. Put another way: The Muslim other sees the Cross when he looks at the West — whether we like it or not. So there would be greater clarity if Westerners themselves honored and recognized the Cross as well. An empty, end-of-history multiculturalism breeds greater confusion than if the West were to say, “We are this, and you are that.”