New York Post Editor Sohrab Ahmari’s Strange Journey From Communist to ‘Theocrat’
“Sometimes reactionary politics are the only salutary path,” Sohrab Ahmari tweeted about the newest of the many paths he’s chosen.
“My moral opinions were as interchangeable as my clothing styles and musical tastes,” the 36-year-old Ahmari, a secular Shiite Muslim-turned-conservative Roman Catholic, writes in his latest book, The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. “I could pick up and drop this ideology or that. I could be a high-school ‘goth,’ a college socialist, a law-school neoconservative. I could dabble in drugs and build an identity around my dabbling. I could get a girlfriend, cheat on her, dump her willy-nilly, and build a pseudo-identity around that, too.”
Since he joined the New York Post in November 2018 from the neoconservative journal Commentary, Ahmari, a clever and gifted writer in his second language (after Farsi), has displayed a dazzling flair for individual self-definition as well as a knack for stoking outrage. The latter has lately been focused on his recently adopted conviction that U.S. government officials at the local, state, and even federal level must act and act now, the First Amendment be damned, to impose a regime of Judeo-Christian and Catholic Church-guided morality on a woke, libertine, money-obsessed American society that is going to hell in a hand-basket.
“That’s the voice of a would-be theocrat speaking, even if he hasn’t yet mustered the courage to acknowledge the conviction,” wrote right-leaning New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, a mentor and friend of Ahmari’s who nonetheless scorched his former protégé’s apparent metamorphosis from “urbane, intelligent and unfailingly good-humored” mainstream conservatism to “the kind of personal nastiness that is supposed to be a virtue in the right’s death struggle against progressive orthodoxies.”
Indeed, Ahmari once tweeted, “To hell with liberal order. Sometimes reactionary politics are the only salutary path.”
Ahmari these days seems to be recommending “a bullying form of politics,” Stephens told The Daily Beast. Nearly a decade ago, as a deputy editorial page editor at The Wall Street Journal, Stephens hired the then-twentysomething Ahmari, awarding him a fellowship that eventually morphed into a full-time job. “We’re not going to destroy one another. We shouldn’t want to destroy one another,” Stephens said.
On the other hand, Stephens added, “If I had to trust my kids’ lives with someone, he would be a good bet.”
Earlier this month, Ahmari—whose wife, Ting, an architect and the mother of their two young children, was born in the Peoples’ Republic of China—prompted a collective aneurysm among his fellow conservatives by tweeting, “I’m at peace with a Chinese-led 21st century. Late-liberal America is too dumb and decadent to last as a superpower. Chinese civilization, especially if it recovers more of its Confucian roots, will possess a great deal of natural virtue.”
With social-media outrage successfully stoked, Ahmari deleted the offending tweet with the explanation that it had become “a magnet for morons” and that because his wife is Chinese “I don’t need lectures on the horrors of the CCP.”
Yet Ahmari’s admiration of communist China, it turns out, aligns perfectly with his recent appreciation for such right-wing nationalist autocrats as Hungry’s Viktor Orban, whom he criticized in the summer of 2016 in a Commentary essay defending the Western liberal democracies he now disparages.
“Orbán’s right-wing nationalist Fidesz Party has gradually hollowed out the country’s democratic institutions,” Ahmari warned then. “He has politicized the judiciary, nationalized pensions by decree, proscribed ‘unbalanced’ media coverage, and removed a slew of other checks and balances on his own power.”
A mere three years later, Ahmari decried Radio Free Europe’s plan to transmit democratic values to Budapest. “The liberal foreign-policy establishment frets that Hungary has drifted away from the community of democracies under” Orbán, he wrote. “But Orbán is, in fact, wildly popular. What Washington’s ‘defend-democracy’ types really fear is that Hungary has become less liberal—not less democratic.”
The Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes, for one, lampooned Ahmari in his newsletter: “Over his checkered career, Ahmari has undergone a number of conversions, from secular Muslim, to atheist, to Communist, to Catholic (with a few side trips along the way), so his newfound admiration for Chinese hegemony may simply be the next step on his ideological evolution toward… well, who knows. The only thing that seems certain is that the arc of Ahmarism does not bend toward freedom.”
Perhaps not, but it certainly does bend. Washington-based speechwriter Shannon Last, wife of Bulwark Executive Editor Jonathan Last, recently posted on Twitter a comprehensive compendium of Ahmari’s self-contradictions, inconsistencies, and whiplash-inducing flip-flops on such topics as Trump (hated him before, then saw the light and grew to really like him), the classically liberal—meaning conservative—political construct (worth defending before, now a spent force), and even Tucker Carlson (a Noam Chomsky-style leftist before, lately a “tough-minded,” “independent” voice, worthy of “a thousand kudos”).
By the time Ahmari left his senior writer’s perch at Commentary in the fall of 2018, it was clear that his views on Trump and Western democracy no longer meshed with those of the Jewish-intellectual magazine edited in its heyday, from the 1960s to the 1990s, by neoconservative icon Norman Podhoretz.
Commentary’s current editor in chief, Norman’s son John Podhoretz, declined to comment on Ahmari, responding to a plea from this writer with the remark, “Don’t bullshit a bullshitter.”
“John is vexed by Sohrab,” said a source who knows both men.
Ahmari, who officially joined the Catholic Church in December 2016—having been inspired by, among other experiences, reading a theological biography of Jesus of Nazareth by the arch-conservative Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI—declined an interview request from The Daily Beast and didn’t respond to a list of questions after initially claiming he’d “consider an interview” but only if this writer read his book.
Ahmari did have some choice words for Sykes, however, emailing this writer: “The Bulwarkers’ and Never Trumpers' tantrums against me can be summed up as, ‘He has changed his mind!’ Have I? Yes. But so did many of my conservative icons, most of whom were converts of various sorts. For that matter, so did my patron saint in the Church, Augustine of Hippo, who spent a decade as a Manichee and then a Neo-Platonist before assenting to the fullness of the Catholic faith.”
Ahmari’s like-minded pal, First Things magazine senior Matthew Schmitz claimed to see an “unrelenting campaign to smear and silence [Ahmari]” as “a reminder of just how unfree America will be if his critics have their way.”
By all available evidence, such a campaign, if it exists, has been massively unsuccessful.
Working for Rupert Murdoch’s periodically fact-challenged tabloid—the latest barbarities being several stories pushing anti-COVID-vaccine fearmongering and the bogus (yet wildly viral on right-wing media) claim that migrant kids had received government-issued copies of a children’s book by Vice President Kamala Harris—Ahmari has thrived at the morale-troubled news outlet as a celebrity intellectual in the Trumpian media ecosystem.
“Sohrab has been a great addition to our team, both collegial and creative,” Ahmari’s nominal boss Mark Cunningham, the Post’s executive editorial page editor, texted The Daily Beast.
Ahmari’s profile as an allegedly theocratic culture warrior rose significantly during a now-famous September 2019 debate at Washington’s Catholic University of America opposite Never-Trump Christian legal activist and pundit David French.
Ahmari had accused him, in his notorious May 2019 essay “Against David French-ism,” of being too “nice,” “guileless,” and “insistently polite” to do battle in the culture wars with the libertine pagans in control of America’s powerful corporations and institutions; interpreting the Constitution as granting free expression to everyone, regardless of how “demonic” their viewpoints, is an ineffectual M.O. symptomatic of “French-ist” conservatives in general, Ahmari had argued. Ahmari’s worst nightmare, apparently, was the official permission granted to a “drag-queen story hour” for little kids at a public library in Sacramento, California.
“Where we are is cultural crisis—I think it’s a five-alarm fire,” Ahmari declared during the Catholic University debate.
“You’ve already said that you would undermine viewpoint neutrality and First Amendment jurisprudence,” French, a Harvard Law-educated constitutional scholar, retorted.
“Yeah, I would,” Ahmari agreed.
Ahmari is a member of an elite group of prominent Catholic converts who share his view that the government must take an expanded and active role in enforcing sociocultural morality; they include Rusty Reno, editor of First Things magazine, which published Ahmari’s attack on French; Catholic University theology professor Chad Pecknold (who calls Ahmari “off-the-charts brilliant”); and Adrian Vermeule, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School.
“His gifts are varied; beyond the obvious ones of a felicitous style and a sharp mind and wit, he has the ability to follow out a chain of reasoning to its logical conclusion—a gift that many of his critics seem to lack,” Vermeule emailed about his ally. “He has already changed the debate in American public life, irrevocably.”
Yet no less a conservative icon than Washington Post columnist George Will warned last year that the policy prescriptions of Vermeule and his like-minded cohort amount to “Christian authoritarianism—muscular paternalism, with government enforcing social solidarity for religious reasons. This is the Constitution minus the Framers’ purpose: a regime respectful of individuals’ diverse notions of the life worth living.”
The headline over a recent essay in the U.S. edition of conservative Spectator, meanwhile, mocked Vermeule and his allies this way: “Medieval fantasists have infiltrated America’s Catholic right.”
As detailed unsparingly in his 2019 memoir From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith, Ahmari’s confession of indulging profound character flaws and embracing wrongheaded ideologies reads like a bid for absolution that his adversaries are unlikely to give him. The book is a dark coming-to-America narrative of his serial and passionate adoption of every belief system from Nietzsche to atheism to the Trotskyite dogma of the Socialist Workers Party, while engaging in blackout drunkenness, smug arrogance, and spiteful behavior, leavened by regret, shame, forgiveness, and sincere spiritual searching.
Indeed, some of his conservative-minded readers found Ahmari’s memoir dizzying and deeply disturbing, especially his severe judgments of his free-spirited, middle-class, and ultimately divorced Persian parents: a chain-smoking architect-father who drank to excess “had a talent for justifying indolence as a matter of high philosophic principle”—and broke off contact with his only child after the teenage Ahmari and his mother left the Islamic Republic of Iran to live with an uncle in Utah; and his mother who, Ahmari writes, “had a ductile soul that took the shape of any stronger personality with which it came into contact.”
Never mind that after Ahmari’s mom moved with him from the uncle’s house, north of Salt Lake City, to a trailer park—a humbling circumstance Ahmari, the spoiled only child, seems to have resented—she worked two jobs to support him.
Weirdly, while Ahmari recounts how his family and their friends in Iran were usually able to evade the various draconian lifestyle restrictions enforced by Ayatollah Khomeini and his ubiquitous religious cops, he describes the regime of the deposed shah as a “benign autocracy,” which will come as news to the thousands of dissident Iranians who were imprisoned, tortured and/or killed by the SAVAK, the shah’s secret police.
By contrast, Ahmari’s new book, The Unbroken Thread, is a series of parables, mostly drawn from time-honored Judeo-Christian theology and the lives of the saints—although Confucius and radical anti-porn feminist Andrea Dworkin are also celebrated—to answer profound questions of human existence (“Does God need politics?” Yes! “Is sex a private matter?” No!) and thus subtly to try to legitimize his theocratic agenda.
"It represents my mature ideas and sets up the anxieties that have prompted my shift from a standard-issue neocon to what might be called post-liberal neo-traditionalism," Ahmari emailed about the book.
“Sohrab is a very interesting guy with an unusual trajectory in life,” said Bret Stephens, who expects he’ll be writing critically about Ahmari’s latest book. “But I suspect it’s not over.”