GOP Letter Highlights Failures of College’s Mahallati Investigation

On Sept. 28, Republican Representatives Jim Banks and Virginia Foxx sent a letter to Oberlin College and President Carmen Twillie Ambar announcing an investigation into Professor of Religion Mohammad Jafar Mahallati for his “well-documented involvement in human rights abuses while part of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and his continued support for Iran’s tyrannical regime while under [the College’s] employment.” 

As skeptical as the Oberlin community might be of this investigation, I caution us not to dismiss it out of hand.

Congress has the ability to uncover evidence that has eluded international bodies, families and activists, and part-time student journalists. For my own part, despite contributing to the Review’s Nov. 5 editorial “Evidence Against Mahallati Irrefutable,” I was unaware of Mahallati’s involvement with Iran-based journal Sepehr-e-Siasat or his 2018 letter to the Speaker of the Islamic Consultative Assembly asking to censor a critic of the regime, both of which are detailed in the Representatives’ letter. 

The end of the letter questions the College’s hiring process for faculty. This seems to be a legitimate area of inquiry — after all, faculty who were involved in Mahallati’s hiring process now hold senior administrative positions at the College. A potential conflict of interest casts doubt upon the College’s own investigative processes. After hiring an anonymous third party to investigate Mahallati, the College never revealed the findings which emboldened them to declare his innocence. What court of law or institution of common sense would accept such a standard?

This controversy is not only a concern for other countries or outside parties. During my time at the Review, I discussed the Mahallati case with four professors, often on more than one occasion. In each instance, my professors were the first to broach the topic, eager to hear a student’s perspective and share their own thoughts. Several of them were concerned about Mahallati’s potential involvement in covering up the 1988 massacres. None of them outright condemned Mahallati or proclaimed his innocence. Common among my professors, however, remained hope for a proper investigation and doubt of the College’s ability to conduct one. Faculty is possibly wary of speaking publicly about a colleague and confronting a College already keen on stripping their institutional role to its bare bones. Their silence cannot be taken as proof of apathy.

Some may believe that even if Mahallati did cover up the massacres, it was an error of many decades ago. But this is not history. The government that stole so many Iranians from their families in 1988 is the same oppressive regime besieged by protest at this very moment. The longevity of despotism relies upon many averted eyes and shut mouths.

It is true that the letter treads well beyond the current allegations against Professor Mahallati, inquiring if Oberlin College has received funding from the Islamic Republic of Iran and detailing the stabbing of Salman Rushdie, a recent tragedy that holds no bearing on Mahallati’s culpability for Iran’s cover-up of the 1988 executions. At times the letter is hyperbolic, with obvious political underpinnings. Reading these words, I can only imagine Representatives Banks and Foxx salivating at the opportunity to mire Oberlin — an institution they disdain — in further ignominy.

Yet the investigation led by Representatives Banks and Foxx, however flawed in its intent, may be the best chance for the families of those killed by the Iranian regime, and for the Oberlin community, to learn the truth of Mahallati’s involvement in the massacre. For this, I am ashamed. I am ashamed that truth arrives at our doorstep embossed in animosity, rather than hand-delivered by those with love in their hearts, a love for Oberlin as conditional as it is unbounded, as I have. 

I remind myself that I must only care about the political alignment of Jim Banks and Virginia Foxx insofar that it may impact the veracity of their findings. If we are disappointed in the messengers, we have only ourselves to blame. The Oberlin community has outsourced this controversy, content to stride past protesting families in Tappan Square or argue in Facebook comments sections under attention-grabbing headlines rather than dutifully read the body of news at their fingertips. And so, our truth deferred has become the tool of another’s malice.

Arman Luczkow

OC ’22