It is scarcely deniable that the Zoroastrian faith is in the throes of a long-term population decline, an observation this is not merely confined to the 11% decline estimated by a comprehensive FEZANA demographic survey between 2004 and 2012. One must also consider our alarming Total Fertility Rate (the potential number of births per woman), which at around .9 children per woman falls far short of the replacement level of 2.1. If the global Zoroastrian population constituted a single country, it would comfortably rank last in the world in this regard (The Republic of Korea currently possesses this dubious honor with 1.11 children per woman). This phenomenon merely exacerbates our already high proportion of senior citizens vis-à-vis children, which is especially problematic in India, Pakistan, and Australia, and portends a further decline barring major demographic reversals or a mass infusion of new adherents.
In this light, recent reports of a Zoroastrian revival in Iraqi Kurdistan (which enjoys autonomous status within Iraq and thus does not pose quite the same dangers to academics and reporters as its counterparts in the Middle East) presents an interesting scenario for our long-term growth. However, questions exist about the size of this conversion, the degree to which the global Zoroastrian community accepts Kurdish coreligionists, and the role Kurdish nationalism has played in Kurds’ desire to distinguish themselves from their overwhelmingly Muslim antagonists in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria (which fascinatingly transcends the Sunni-Shia divide). Each of these questions deserves significant attention, for our response to this question would impact our future demography for years, if not decades, to come.
Although the Kurds largely practiced Zoroastrianism during the reigns of the three great Zoroastrian Persian Empires, the Arab Conquest ushered in a long period of Islamization. Historical Kurds include Saladin, the Sultan who successfully opposed Richard the Lionhearted’s Third Crusade and reconquered Jerusalem (which Muslim rulers continued to hold until World War I). However, the Kurdish people have largely endured oppression for centuries. Their dispersal between four neighbors (some of whom exercise significant regional power) and the abandonment of the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres crushed Kurdish hopes of independence in an era defined by a nearly inexorable tide of nationalism. Undeniably, the revival of Zoroastrianism in Kurdistan has been closely associated with Kurdish nationalism — Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), “openly taught that Zoroastrianism is morally and intellectually superior to Islam”, while Zoroastrian and Kurdish symbols share pride of place in religious and community ceremonies and festivals. Additionally, the Kurdish politician Karim Sureni has claimed that Zarathushtra (Zardasht in Kurdish) was of Kurdish origin — indicative of the interconnectivity between religion and nation at the heart of the Kurdish struggle. An editorial in Parsiana magazine highlighted this occasional spotlight on Zoroastrianism, reporting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dismissal of the PKK as “atheists” and “Zoroastrians… not acting with our values”. Meanwhile, in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, prominent Zoroastrian figures, including Awat Tayib, the Zoroastrian representative to the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, have pointed to the rise of the Islamic State and its brand of radicalism as a root cause of the Zoroastrian revival in the region. Interestingly, the Kurdish Peshmerga has won widespread praise for its resoluteness and bravery in their struggle against ISIS, with female soldiers (utterly taboo in the Middle East outside of the Israeli Defense Forces) earning special praise.
I recently had the privilege of attending the 7th World Zarthushti Youth Congress in Los Angeles, where Mr. Pablo Vazquez, who is currently working on a dissertation on Kurdish Zoroastrianism at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, presented a fascinating lecture on the subject. Mr. Vazquez spoke extensively about the themes mentioned above and provided detailed information on the distinct Kurdish elements in their practice of their faith — such as their use of a woolen thread thicker than the kusti but eschewing the sadra, the existence of male and female pirs (a term analogous to mobed and borrowed from Sufism), and the lack of any clear hierarchy within this order of pirs (unlike the distinction between ervads and mobeds among Parsis).
Mr. Vazquez spoke lucidly of the implications of this synthesis of nationality, culture, and religion. He foresees that global Zoroastrianism “will follow its historical path of cultural-regional localization” prominently witness in Sogdiana, Armenia, and China historically and by Parsis and Iranians in the recent past. The Kurds are merely testament to the supreme adaptability and dynamism of our religion as it establishes roots both in Kurdistan by conversion and in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia and New Zealand primarily (but by no means exclusively) by immigration from India and Iran. In each country, the religion has indeed slowly adapted to its surroundings as its adherents slowly solidify their ties to the new religion. Our role in India and Bombay’s development has long been a matter of supreme pride for Parsis with ties to India, and we continue to revere figures such as Dadabhai Naoroji or Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw who devoted their lives to the service of India.
In conclusion, the growing embrace of Zoroastrianism in Kurdistan bodes well for our future demographically and potentially portends a return to a historical diversity in religious practices not seen since the fall of the Sassanian Empire helped usher in a period of duality in the faith between Indian Parsis and Iranians. While there are genuine reasons to suspect nationalist motives behind this phenomenon, it is far from certain that this should be feared, given the current and historical admixture of Zoroastrianism and nationalism. Most interesting is the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party’s firm support for Kurdish Zoroastrianism. This includes official recognition of the faith in August 2015, support for the Yasna Organization (founded by Awat Tayib), and the establishment of an official fire temple in Sulaymaniyah (the epicenter of the Zoroastrian revival). The California Zoroastrian Center has been especially welcoming of Tayib and her Kurdish Zoroastrians.
About Jeh Z. Mory
Jeh Z. Mory is a 19-year old studying Business at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. He has lived extensively in both India and the United States, and is intimately familiar with both countries.
Jeh has served as a Content Writer with Laugh Out Loud Ventures, a start-up that creates humorous educational content for Indian schoolchildren, by winning a national essay contest with about twenty-five thousand entries. He actively participated in the Bombay quiz circuit for about five years, winning multiple annual city-level quiz competitions and occasionally appearing in nationally televised events. He also enjoyed participating in Model United Nations and my schools’ basketball team and choir.
Fatah, L. (2015, November 26). The curious rebirth of Zoroastrianism in Iraqi Kurdistan. Retrieved from Projects 21: https://projects21.org/2015/11/26/the-curious-rebirth-of-zoroastrianism-in-iraqi-kurdistan/
Homa, A. (2017, April 10). Kurdistan, the only government in Middle East that recognizes religious diversity. Retrieved from Kurdistan 24: https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/culture/321804d4-5b58-4008-848d-e1cc263230b4/kurdistan–the-only-government-in-middle-east-that-recognizes-religious-diversity
Marouf, H. (2018, October 10). Peshmerga Female Fighters: From Frontline to Sideline. Retrieved from The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/peshmerga-female-fighters-from-frontline-to-sideline
Othman, S. (2016, September 28). A Zoroastrian Temple Opens in Kurdistan. Retrieved from Parsi Khabar: https://parsi.wpengine.com/kurdistan/a-zoroastrian-temple-opens-in-kurdistan/14439/
Parisana Magazine. (2016, September 7). “Nothing will come of them”. Retrieved from Parsiana Magazine: https://www.parsiana.com/current-issue/articles.aspx?id=M7V3HilUQ1Y=
Rivetna, R. (2012). The Zarathushti World – a Demographic Picture. New York: FEZANA.
Szanto, E. (2018, April 4). “Zoroaster was a Kurd!”: Neo-Zoroastrianism among the Iraqi Kurds. Iran and the Caucusus , pp. 96-110.
World Population Review. (2019). Fertility Rate By Country 2019. Retrieved from World Population Rate: http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/total-fertility-rate/
 (Rivetna, 2012), pg 4
 (Rivetna, 2012), pg 11
 (World Population Review, 2019)
 (Szanto, 2018), pg 98
 (Homa, 2017)
 (Szanto, 2018), pg 97
 (Parisana Magazine, 2016)
 (Parisana Magazine, 2016)
 (Marouf, 2018)
 (Fatah, 2015)
 (Othman, 2016)