Jason Hawk, The Chronicle-Telegram
Sep 30, 2022 5:00 AM
OBERLIN — Two members of Congress say religion professor Mohammad Jafar Mahallati’s employment at Oberlin College raises concerns “about the Iranian regime’s infiltration of our higher education system.”
U.S. Reps. Jim Banks, R-Indiana, and Virginia Foxx, R-North Carolina, sent a letter Wednesday to Oberlin College trustees and President Carmen Twillie Ambar, saying they are worried about national security and demanding documents about his job and who pays for it.
Both are members of the Committee on Education and Labor.
The letter accuses the college of whitewashing Mahallati’s “well-documented involvement in human rights abuses” while he served as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1987 to 1989.
During that time, the Islamic Republic of Iran executed thousands of political prisoners and buried them in unmarked graves.
No one knows exactly how many were killed. Human Rights Watch estimates the deaths range between 2,800 and 4,500 while others believe as many as 30,000 perished.
“Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Canada’s Parliament labeled these mass killings as crimes against humanity,” Banks and Foxx wrote. “Despite the clear and overwhelming evidence that these events were occurring, Mr. Mahallati dismissed these atrocities as ‘nothing but propaganda’ and ‘fake information.’”
Mahallati taught at Princeton, Georgetown, Yale and Columbia University in the 1980s and 1990s, and was hired at Oberlin College in 2007. There he has developed courses in friendship and forgiveness studies and started the annual Friendship Day Festival.
In October 2020, a group calling itself the Alliance Against Islamic Regime of Iran Apologists demanded Mahallati be fired.
Leading the group was Lawdan Bazargan, who said her brother was among those put to death in 1988.
Reached for comment Thursday, she said Mahallati “spent his life defending a brutal gender-apartheid regime” and said her group is “shocked and disappointed that Oberlin College has given Mahallati a platform to promote radical Islamic ideology, spread hate and division and call it peace and friendship.”
She also criticized his role as a trustee of the Boston-based ILEX Foundation, which promotes the study of Middle Eastern civilizations. Through the foundation, Mahallati has allegedly invited controversial Iranian politicians to speak.
As Iran’s representative, Mahallati had to know about the slaughter and was culpable in covering it up, Bazargan has said on several occasions.
In a 2018 report, Amnesty International listed Mahallati among those who “were actively involved in denying the mass killings in media interviews and exchanges with the U.N. to shield those responsible from accountability.”
Oberlin College said it conducted an investigation over the following year.
“The inquiry did not find proof to corroborate the allegations that Professor Mahallati knew of the atrocities at the time he was asked about them during his tenure at the United Nations,” according to a statement from the college.
Nor could the review find a pattern of antisemitic behavior or calls for the destruction of Israel, Oberlin College said in response to accusations lobbied by protesters.
Mahallati told the college he believes in a two-state solution allowing Israel and Palestine to coexist peacefully, according to the statement.
Bazargan has also helped advance a recent claim that as Iran’s ambassador Mahallati defended Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s order to kill Salman Rushdie.
The controversial author’s novel “The Satanic Verses” was based on the life of the prophet Muhammad and was perceived by many Muslims as blasphemy.
Rushdie has survived a number of assassination attempts in the decades since, including being stabbed 15 times on Aug. 12 of this year.
But the claim that Mahallati endorsed the fatwa against Rushdie is somewhat tenuous. Pressed about it in 1989, Mahallati reportedly said, “I think all Islamic countries agree with Iran. All Islamic nations and countries agree with Iran that any blasphemous statement against sacred figures should be condemned,” but did not explicitly call for violence.
In their letter, Banks and Foxx said Mahallati has maintained a “close association with Tehran’s tyrannical regime” during his tenure at Oberlin.
They called into question Oberlin College’s reporting of foreign funding under the Higher Education Act, and whether the Iranian government played a role in securing Mahallati’s job in 2007.
Banks and Foxx have asked the college to disclose whether it’s received funding or in-kind contributions from Iran or anyone linked to its government and to disclose the funding source for Mahallati’s endowed professorship.
They are also demanding any related financial statements, all contracts associated with Mahallati’s employment and his course syllabi from the past 15 years.
The two representatives set an Oct. 12 deadline for the college to comply.
“The United States has a clear interest in refusing to coddle human rights violators, and Congress has repeatedly raised concerns about domestic political interference from hostile foreign regimes on our college campuses,” they wrote. “It is utterly perplexing that Oberlin so obstinately harbors Mr. Mahallati, an individual with such a disgraceful past and of questionable current allegiance.”
Mahallati and Oberlin College did not respond to requests for comment.
Jason Hawk can be reached at (440) 329-7122 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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