Mahallati Editorial Needs Context

I cannot help but be deeply sympathetic with the participants in the Nov. 2 protest — against Professor of Religion and Nancy Schrom Dye Chair in Middle East and North African Studies Mohammad Jafar Mahallati — who mourn the death of their friends and family members. And I understand the power of their appeal for accountability. Nevertheless, I must take issue with the conclusions of The Oberlin Review Editorial Board, as stated in the Nov. 5 issue, that “Oberlin College … is employing and defending someone likely responsible for covering up crimes against humanity,” and that “[Professor] Mahallati’s rhetoric about the Baha’is laid the groundwork for Iran to commit genocide against the Baha’i community.”

As Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Mahallati took on the extremely challenging task of bringing an end to the Iran-Iraq War, which resulted in an estimated 500,000 deaths, despite the obduracy of Iran’s leadership. Attributing positions espoused by that leadership to him as his personal views flies in the face of his actual life’s work, which has been focused, above all, on friendship between individuals, nations, and faith traditions.

Unfortunately, by referring back to an April 30, 2021 Review article headlined “Religion Professor Accused of Anti-Semitic, Anti-Baha’i Sentiment,” the editors give encouragement to those who continue, without evidence, to accuse Oberlin College of anti-Semitism. The editors also ought to be aware that the anti-Mahallati protests in Ohio culminating at Oberlin’s Memorial Arch were fueled in many publications, including an op-ed column in The Columbus Dispatch on Oct. 19 headlined “‘Woke people’ should be outraged Ohio ‘professor of peace’ was ‘chief organizer’ of mass slaughter.” The “woke people” the article attacks refers to Oberlin College, a place the editors say “we hold dear.”

The editors need also to realize the larger context in which these anti-Mahallati demonstrations have been taking place. The author of the Dispatch op-ed is now communications director of the Ohio Republican Party and was appointed to a staff position in the Nuclear Arms Control and International Security Branch of the State Department during the Trump administration. Now that the Biden administration is striving to reconstruct something like the Iran Nuclear Agreement that Trump abruptly and unilaterally demolished, even though all parties were in agreement that Iran was abiding by it, the factions that persuaded Trump to take his destructive action are all the more zealous in their effort to strangle Iran.

As a member of Oberlin’s Community Peace Builders, I know the many ways we Oberlinians have benefited from Professor Mahallati’s initiatives for friendship and peace over the past 14 years. I hope that the editors will come to see how destructive it is, personally and institutionally, to link him — mistakenly — to oppressive policies of the Iranian government three decades ago.