Photo courtesy of Sela Miller
The College has concluded its investigation into allegations that an Oberlin Religion professor made antisemitic and anti-Baha’i statements and aided the Iranian government in covering up the mass killing of political dissidents in the 1980s. The College’s investigation found no evidence that Nancy Schrom Dye Professor of Religion Mohammad Jafar Mahallati was aware of or participated in covering up the mass killing, nor that he demonstrated any antisemitic behavior.
The allegations against Mahallati came to light last October when a letter calling for the College to terminate Mahallati’s position — signed by 626 individuals, including former political prisoners and victims’ family members — was sent to President Carmen Twillie Ambar. The letter alleged that Mahallati helped cover up the 1988 mass killing of political and religious dissidents in Iran during his service as Iran’s representative to the United Nations from 1987–89.
According to records from the 1983 U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Mahallati denied reports that the Iranian government had executed 22 Baha’i citizens and accused Baha’is of terrorism.
“Reports of arbitrary executions in Iran were complete fabrications and had been submitted to the United Nations by those very organizations which instigated terrorism in his country,” the report stated when describing Mahallati’s defense.
At the time, Mahallati likened Baha’is to murderers and terrorists and questioned why the U.S. and European countries were allowed to pursue execution of people who committed such crimes, while Iran was unable to enact similar punitive measures.
“It would also be interesting to know why the European Parliament had the right to restrain the activities of the followers of certain sects and, for example, to prevent sexual abuses committed by those sects whereas [Iran] was required to tolerate all immoral behaviour or sexual abuse, sometimes advisable according to groups such as the Baha’is, why some countries such as the United States had the right to execute murderers, while [Iran] could not punish terrorists who burned schoolchildren.” the report stated.
According to a press statement Director of Media Relations Scott Wargo sent to the Review, the College’s investigation did not find any evidence to support the allegations that Mahallati helped cover up the mass killing or demonstrated antisemitic behavior. The statement did not mention the allegations of Mahallati’s anti-Baha’i rhetoric.
“Oberlin deeply empathizes with the pain and suffering caused by the executions in Iran,” the statement read.
“After becoming aware of the allegations against Professor Mahallati, Oberlin initiated its own process to determine their validity. After consulting a number of sources and evaluating the public record, the College could find no evidence to corroborate the allegations against Professor Mahallati, including that he had specific knowledge of the murders taking place in Iran.”
The initial allegations that Mahallati made antisemitic remarks referred to a statement Mahallati made to the U.N. on Feb. 14, 1989.
“Palestine is an Islamic territory, and Islamic heritage, and it remains an Islamic point of identity,” Mahallati said. “The land of Palestine is the platform of the ascension of the Prophet Mohammad; its significance is that it contains the first Qibla direction — towards which Muslims prayed. Its occupation by Zionist usurpers is a transgression against all Muslims of the world and its liberation is therefore a great religious obligation and commitment.”
This April, Chief of Staff David Hertz informed the Review that the College had reached out to Jewish representatives on campus to extend support to the College’s Jewish community. Rabbi Megan Doherty expressed gratitude to the College for working to combat antisemitism.
“Oberlin Hillel is committed to ensuring Oberlin College is a welcoming and safe environment for Jewish students,” Doherty wrote in an email to the Review. “We appreciate the College’s investigation of Professor Mahallati, its commitment to addressing these issues and its partnership in preventing, combatting, and mitigating antisemitism on campus.”
However, the College has not contacted Baha’i faculty or students regarding either the allegations against Mahallati or the subsequent investigation. While the Baha’i Faith does not have clergy, and individuals are not authorized to represent the larger Baha’i community, Chair of the Geology Department Amanda Schmidt was the Baha’i affiliate with the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life when the accusations were initially made. According to Schmidt, no one from the College has contacted her regarding the accusations or the investigation despite her position.
“I was not reached out to by anyone in the administration to follow up on or provide support for the Baha’i students on campus [or] Baha’i faculty and staff members related to these accusations,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt also said that she does not harbor any ill will toward Mahallati.
“I have interacted with Professor Mahallati in a relatively limited capacity and have always had very positive interactions with him,” Schmidt said. “For example, during my second year at Oberlin, we served together on a faculty interfaith council and we got along quite well. … From a Baha’i perspective, the question of one’s involvement in anyone’s accusations against an individual is something that is to be dealt with through the [Baha’i] administrative order or judicial system — not by individuals — and that the role of individuals is to love all people for the sake of God. Because if we look at individuals and try to love them for themselves … we’ll become disappointed in them, but if we love them for the sake of God, then we will see God reflected in all human beings.”
A group of activists — most with no affiliation to the College — has announced that they will hold a protest on Tuesday, Nov. 2 outside the Cox Administration Building to demand that the College remove Mahallati from his teaching position. Several members of this group were signatories on the October 2020 letter sent to President Ambar. The group identifies itself as the Oberlin Committee for Justice for Mahallati’s Victims.
“We believe the continuation of employment of Mr. Mahallati is in contrast with Oberlin’s mission statement, emphasizing ‘an enduring commitment to a sustainable and just society,’” read the committee’s press release regarding the protest. “Regrettably, despite the promise of [President Ambar] and Hertz … to investigate Mr. Mahallati’s role in this atrocity, they did not publish any report, did not engage with the families of the victims, and allowed Mr. Mahallati to go back to teaching students. We repeat our campaign demand of October 2020 and ask for Mr. Mahallati’s immediate removal.”
Mahallati did not respond to a request for comment.