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How Iraqi Kurdistan is reversing the trend of declining Zoroastrian populations

With Kurdish identity and culture under threat from ISIS, the core principles of Zoroastrianism are finding favour with disillusioned youth in the region.

Faced with the barbaric actions of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on their doorstep, a growing number of Kurds, particularly among the youth, are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the various interpretations of Islam on offer in the region.

There is an age-old Zoroastrian mantra: “Good words, good thoughts and good actions”. It still holds true for the small but growing number of Zoroastrians living in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region.

While some look to secular, Western cultural ideals, others are looking to the past and exploring ancient Kurdish beliefs. Up until the seventh century Islamic conquests, Kurds across the region were followers of various pre-Abrahamic faiths, such as Zoroastrianism and Yazidism. In August this year, the Kurdistan Regional Government officially recognised Zoroastrianism as a religion. The move elicited mixed reactions.

According to local media reports, around 10,000 have converted to Zoroastrianism in the last year alone. Some local media reports purport this figure to be as high as a lakh.

The search for identity

Kurds across the Middle East have generally clung to their ethnic identity rather than their religion. Though Islam has played a more pivotal role in marking out regional identities in recent years, this has not really been the case among Kurds. Islamic parties usually garner only 10%-15% of the vote in the Kurdistan Regional Government and Kurdish Provincial council elections.

With the Kurdish identity and culture under threat from ISIS, the perceived “Kurdishness” of Zoroastrianism adds to its appeal. “All Kurds are nationalists and we take pride in our heritage, so of course the Kurdish nature of the religion influenced my decision to convert,” said Shwan Rahman, a recent convert to Zoroastrianism.

Rahman, 30, grew up in London and was a devout Muslim for most of his teenage years, but became an atheist when he returned to live in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region in 2010 and work as a lawyer. He says that the peaceful, Zen-like, philosophy of the religion was its greatest appeal.

“The main principles of Zoroastrianism coincide with my way of thinking: good words, good thoughts, good actions,” he said. “At the beginning of this year, I started to consider converting to Zoroastrianism after finding a page on Facebook that posted information about the religion on a regular basis.”

Mullah Abbas Khidir Faraj, preacher at Awal Bakrajo Mosque and Head of Public Relations for the Islamic Scholars Union in Sulaimania, concedes that ISIL has had a negative impact on the public’s perception of Islam. “ISIL are criminals and they claim to act in the name of Islam. Of course this has an impact on us, but they are not true Muslims,” he said.

Inherent appeal

Arguably the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism – or Zardashti, as it is called in Kurdish – stood out from its polytheistic counterparts during the Bronze Age.

Once the official state religion of three Persian empires (Achaemenid, Arsacid and Sassanian) there are now thought to be less than two lakh followers worldwide. The most active communities are in Iran and India, though there are a handful of diaspora communities across Europe and the United States. However, there are a growing number of activists in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region trying to reverse that trend.

One activist, Awat Taeeb, set up the non-governmental organisation Yasna (which is the name of one of the texts in the Zoroaster holy book, the Avesta) along with a friend to promote the cultural aspects of Zoroastrianism. The NGO was started in London in 2006 and after a failed attempt to open a branch in 2012 in the Kurdistan Regional Government territory, a branch of Yasna was successfully opened in March.

Taeeb, who was raised as a Zoroastrian, is passionate about her religion, and talks animatedly about its peaceful and environment-friendly nature. She also points out that the religion promotes equality between men and women, as it does not differentiate between the roles and status of the sexes in the same way Islam does.

In recent months, they have used a combination of seminars and social media to promote their cause and recruit new followers. “We have held a number of seminars in Sulaimania and also in the surrounding rural areas such as Darbandikhan, Rania and Kifri, as well as cities such as Hawler and Kirkuk,” she said.

“What has become clear to us is that people have been truly shocked by the acts of ISIS – they feel this interpretation of Islam doesn’t represent them and it is attacking Kurdish identity. They feel that what they are learning about Zoroastrianism feels more Kurdish, more familiar,” Taeeb added.

Seeds of doubt

But some, including Mullah Faraj, question exactly how “Kurdish” Zorastrianism is and think that this will limit its appeal.

“Zoroastrian Kurds were always in Iranian Kurdistan and not in this area,” said Faraj. “There is no history in this area of Kurds being Zoroastrian. For this reason, I think it will be hard for them and it’s unlikely they will be successful.”

Sulaimania resident Galawizh Ghulam is also sceptical about the success of the recruitment efforts.

“I find the numbers quoted in the newspapers to be very high,” said Ghulam. “I can see that the younger generation might be turned off by Islam because of ISIL, although personally I don’t think ISIL represents Islam. Even if the youth are turned off, I don’t see large numbers converting.”

Converting from Islam is controversial, and society in the Islamic world will not be sympathetic. Asked his opinion on the matter, Mullah Faraj said that he did not feel people would face reprisals and that, whilst no one likes to lose followers, one had to accept their decision. “You cannot force someone to follow you. If they believe, they will choose to follow you,” he said.

Taeeb and Rahman have reservations as to how easy it will be for large numbers to convert. Despite the potential for broad appeal, conversions will likely be resisted by the dominant religious forces in the region.

Taeeb said they have already received threats from various Islamic groups, and for that reason they have so far stuck to preaching about the culture of Zoroastrianism. Her NGO focuses its efforts solely in this direction.

“We have received many threats and people try to spread falsehoods that we are fire worshipers, but that is not true,” she said. “We will have to work slowly and cautiously, but we are a peaceful religion and we believe in free will.”

Space for debate

It is not always easy to have an open debate about the role of religion in politics in the Kurdistan Region. Many, though not all, politicians fear harsh rebuttals – even reprisals – from Islamist groups and shy away from discussing the issues in hand, from whether ISIS is truly Islamic in nature to whether or not the Kurdish constitution should be completely secular so that women can have equal status to men.

Previous attempts at instituting gender equality in the charter have been shut down by Islamist factions, even though they represent only 10-15% of the voting population. The lack of tolerated open debate is leading to black and white views on many sides.

Is the revival of Zoroastrianism in Iraqi Kurdistan a reaction to the increasing role of Islam in politics and the presence of ISIL?

“In my opinion, nothing ISIL have done up until now is in conflict with the principles of Islam,” said Rahman. “This has definitely taken a lot of people away from Islam, especially amongst the younger generations.”

While it is natural that there will be some resistance to a new or returning religion trying to gain ground in the Kurdistan Region, Taeeb is quick to point out that they have had support from various individual members of all the main secular parties in the Kurdistan Region. They are now lobbying the Kurdistan Regional Government to set up a directorate of Zoroastrian Affairs similar to that of the Yazidis. They have also asked for land to be provided for the construction of a new temple.

Ghulam, however, remains unconvinced,

“I think young people are more likely to just move away from all religions,” she said. “They will either become more secular or be non-observant Muslims. I, for example, believe in God but I don’t pray on a regular basis.”

It is unlikely that large swathes of people will suddenly forsake Islam, but in the face of extremism, there is some heated debate over the role religion should play within society and politics. Whether or not Zoroastrianism is actually Kurdish in nature is also being debated. Non-Kurdish academics generally posit that it originated with the Persians and possibly from further East.

It is encouraging to see that cautious attempts to create a space for discussion and tolerance are emerging. However, in order to truly move forward, the debate must also consider the similarities and perhaps even influences that Zoroastrianism has had on the Abrahamic religions. They all believe in heaven and hell, redemption, the Messiah, the existence of an evil spirit and judgement day. A greater awareness and understanding of other religions would help to create a more tolerant atmosphere and debate.

Yet sadly, subversion and manipulation of religion throughout the centuries for political gain have left the region struggling with its identity and stability.

Lara Fatah is a communications consultant based in Iraqi Kurdistan. She is also a PS21 global fellow.

Published on the Project for Study of the 21st Century.

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