zamwi-templeIranian Americans are one of the most spiritually diverse diaspora groups in the United States due to their wide range of minority religions. Although most are Shia Muslims, they are still much more diverse religiously than Iranians in Iran. An MIT poll of Iranian Americans in 2005 found that half of them identified as Muslim, while the CIA World Factbook estimates that 95% of Iranians in Iran do. In addition to Baha’is, Christians, Jews, and secularists, members of ancient Iranian religions have also found a home in the United States. Of these, perhaps the most interesting example is Zoroastrianism.

Known as Zarathustrianism in Avestan, it started 3,500 years ago with its founder Zarathustra, or Zoroaster. Zoroaster stands out among many prophets for teaching that humans are innately free, and that religion should guide them to the Truth rather than compel them to it. He also stressed that “good thoughts, good words, and good deeds” are the path to salvation, not dogmatic adherence to particular tenets. Despite avoiding proselytization, Zoroastrianism became an official religion of the classical Persian Empire from Anatolia to the Indus River. At the same time, its promotion of monotheism influenced early Judaism, and by extension Christianity and Islam, among other faiths.

Although it had millions of followers in its heyday, Zoroastrianism has declined in recent history. Many Zoroastrians fled to undivided India (which today comprises of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) after Persia’s conquest by Arabs in the 7th Century; the descendants of which are known as Parsis. As of 2012, Iran had an estimated 15-25,000 Zoroastrians, while India had 61,000. By accidents of history and politics, however, America has seen a steady increase in the population to 15,000 Zoroastrians. Many left Iran during the 1979 Revolution; combined with others from India and Pakistan who came for educational and economic opportunities, the U.S. now has the third largest Zoroastrian population in the world.

Nevertheless, Zoroastrianism faces many challenges to its survival in the 21st century. While the US community grew by 33 percent from 2004 to 2012, India’s shrunk by 12 percent (largely a feature of lower birth rates), creating a net global decline in population. This has started a debate among North America’s Zoroastrians about whether to initiate non-Zoroastrian spouses from mixed households. “Why would a child want to initiate into a religion that rejects the non-Zoroastrian parent?” one DC-based Zoroastrian asked rhetorically. Overall, opposition to conversion tends to come from Parsis, who are concerned it could lead to assimilation of Zoroastrians into larger faiths and cultures given their small numbers. One anonymous Parsi said he wanted greater acceptance of mixed families but was cautious about overt conversion from the general population: “Although Zoroastrianism’s message is universal, its rituals and culture are specific to existing traditions and an understanding of communal identity.”

Another challenge is Zoroastrianism’s emphasis on independence and freedom of choice. Among Zoroastrians, worship can occur at a temple or at home. In North America, priests are strictly volunteers who give their time willingly. The priest for Washington’s community, Behram M. Panthaki, elaborated that since the religion enjoins freedom of choice he might give a sermon or an explanation of the prayers after a ceremony, but he would refrain from pontificating. Although there are civic Zoroastrian groups like the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America, there are no central bodies or leaders like a Pope dictating doctrine. As a result, Parsi and Iranian Zoroastrian communities have different norms for who is Zoroastrian, while priests use different liturgical languages and calendars depending on their background and training.

Despite these challenges, Zenobia Panthaki remained optimistic about the future of her faith. She often found that Zoroastrians become more concerned about preserving their culture as they get older. In addition, the use of the internet to share, translate, and preserve Zoroastrian religious texts and historical records has also helped. She predicted that this would help spread its ideas and tenets to more people, making it “more logical, and less ritualistic.”

Meanwhile, North America’s Zoroastrians are increasingly coming together. In 2014, after years of planning, and a munificent donation by an Iranian Zoroastrian family, the first DC Metro area center opened in Boyds, Maryland, bringing together Parsi and Iranian Zoroastrians. Unity has helped them advocate for each other, and to coordinate their religious and social relations. Mr. Kersi Shroff, a past-president of the local association, formed in 1979, told how the group had originally sought planning permission to establish a center in Fairfax, Virginia, but encountered resistance. “The county government imposed many conditions for building the temple, and the neighbors thought we were a cult and even questioned the source of our financing. Seeing us, they thought ‘They’re Muslims!’” In Boyds, by contrast, the neighbors were more welcoming, having read about the faith and its history and the Zoroastrians themselves began engaging more with the local church and the Boyds civic community.

At least as importantly, the Boyds center seeks to not merely revive Zoroastrianism but adapt it to modern challenges and culture. One theme touched on by all the congregants was the sense of continuity Zoroastrianism provided despite all the other challenges they faced. Mina Aidun, an instructor for the temple, became inspired to promote Zoroastrianism after leaving Iran with her family in 1978. Even as she had to leave her country and rebuild in a new one, she knew that “Zoroastrianism’s universalism does not change with time.” One member of the community emphasized the ways in which Zoroastrianism can complement modern culture. He initiated to Zoroastrianism in his youth to rediscover his roots: “For me, conversion was not a rejection of my previous faith, but a return to Zoroastrianism.”

Posted By Christian Jepsen

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7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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