Iran’s Striking Decline in Religiosity
The GAMMAN survey on religious beliefs in Iran, discussed in yesterday’s post, has some interesting and unexpected results. According to conventional sources, over 90 percent of Iran’s people follow Shia Islam; according to GAMAAN, only around a third of the Iran people actually believe Shia doctrine. Most of the rest are supposedly either non-religious or religiously heterodox in one way or another. If these results are accurate, Iran is much more similar to Europe in terms of religiosity than it is to most other Middle Eastern countries. Although the GAAMAN results may be exaggerated, it is clear that many Iranians have turned away from religion. They have done in part because of the brutality and incompetence of their country’s theocratic government. Tensions with the Arabic-speaking world also seem to play a role. Many Iranians stereotype Arabs as prone to religious extremism, and some blame them for politicizing Islam and thus contributing to the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution. This attitude puts pressure on Iran’s own Arab minority, and in turn pushes them to respond. As reported in the Wikipedia article on Iran’s 2016 pro-monarchical Cyrus the Great protests:
Despite the anti-Arab slogans chanted by some, a perception by many Iranians that Arab cultural dominance has entered Iran through the government’s political Islam, Iranian, Arabs, traveling from as far west as Khuzestan, gathered in support of the protest, chanting slogans in Arabic in support of indigenous minorities and the use of their native languages, which has often been repressed by the Iranian government in favor of Persia.
The GAMAAN survey puts Iran’s Sunni Muslim minority at five percent of the total population, which is similar to the conventional figure. If these figures are correct, Sunni religious beliefs in Iran have not appreciably declined, unlike those of the Shia community. As can be seen on Michael Izady’s map of religion in Iran, Sunni Islam is followed mostly by members of ethnic minorities: Baluchs in the southeast, Turkmens in the northeast, and Kurds in the northwest. Note also that Izady pegs Iran’s Sunni population at 11 percent. Other sources suggest that it could be as high as 25 percent, a figure that, if true, is concealed by the Shia establishment. If these higher numbers are accurate and if the GAMAAN figures are also correct, then Sunni Islam has also experienced a pronounced erosion of belief in Iran. If this is indeed the case, I suspect that the drop in Sunni religiosity is most pronounced in the Kurdish northwest. The Kurds in general are a relatively secular people who are also inclined to religious heterodoxy.
The most surprising aspect of the GAMAAN survey is the prominent position of Zoroastrianism. It found that almost eight percent of Iran’s people claim to follow this faith, which had been the predominant religion of Iran before the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. According to official statistics, Iran’s Zoroastrian community is tiny: roughly 25,000 people out of a national population of almost 87 million. It is inconceivable that millions of Iranians have converted to this venerable but dwindling faith, commonly regarded as in some danger of extinction. But increasing numbers of Iranians do express solidarity with, and interest in, Zoroastrianism. They do so both to distance themselves from the Shia clerical regime and to show their loyalty to a deeply rooted version of Iranian nationalism. Zoroastrianism has also seen something of a revival among the Kurds of Iraq, and perhaps in Central Asia as well.
The Iranian government is not happy about the revival of interest in Zoroastrianism. According to a recent article in Swarajya magazine, it is “the religion that the Iranian mullahs fear the most.” Iran’s theocratic regime is also worried about Yarsan, a mystical faith with some connection to Zoroastrianism that is followed by up to one million Iranian Kurds. As IranWire recently noted, “Official report calls Yarsan religious minority a ‘security threat.’”