By Gigi Ewing, Managing Editor
May 20, 2022
After a series of international protests, the Alliance Against Islamic Regime of Iran Apologists will return to Oberlin to protest at the class of 2022 Commencement on June 5. The protest will mark the third time that activists have protested the employment of Professor of Religion Mohammad Jafar Mahallati at Oberlin. Mahallati has been accused of covering up crimes against humanity when he served as Iran’s representative to the U.N. in the 1980s.
According to Lawdan Bazargan, the protest organizer and sister of a 1988 massacre victim, the upcoming protest will be mobile, unlike the more stationary protests they have previously staged. Protesters have planned a highly visual event to draw attention from audience members at the Commencement.
“We want to walk around and hopefully talk to as many people as possible and embarrass the College as much as possible,” Bazargan said.
College fourth-year and Iranian-American student Sophie Bernstein expressed hope that the Commencement protest will attract broader support than the last demonstration, which only drew a small crowd.
“I hope that because it’s Commencement, people who aren’t students will pay attention,” Bernstein said. “I think Oberlin College has failed these protestors in a lot of ways. I hope that a broader audience at Commencement would be more sympathetic than people have up until this point.”
Bernstein specifically noted the lack of student response to the protest movement.
“There has been a lot of pushback to talk about Professor Mahallati, especially because he’s tenured and he still works here,” Bernstein said. “I think it is concerning when there are such severe allegations against someone, people are not willing to have a conversation … especially because [the protesters] keep coming back — it’s not like the issue is over for the people that are affected. Oberlin prides itself on being a school that’s centered around social justice, but there are people seeking justice and their calls are not being answered.”
Since May 12, the AAIRIA has rallied members in the United States and internationally to protest Mahallati’s continued employment at the College. Groups will continue protesting in a few other U.S. cities before culminating their movement at Oberlin early next month.
The group chose locations to target specific individuals, from Board of Trustees members Amy Chen and Chris Canavan to various offices of Greenberg Traurig, the law firm representing Mahallati. Notably, Canavan will also speak at the Commencement. Canavan declined the Review’s request for comment.
Bazargan also commented on a recently resurfaced 1989 Reuters article in which Mahallati defended the fatwā issued against Salman Rushdie after the publication of his novel, Satanic Verses. Although unsurprised that Mahallati supported the fatwā, as his position required that he defend the theocratic regime’s dictates, Bazargan expressed shock that the College continued to employ Mahallati.
“He had said back then that if Westerners believe in freedom of speech — this is our freedom of speech,” Bazargan said. “Can you believe it? Putting a bounty on the head of somebody is freedom of speech — and this guy teaches ethics and morality to you guys.”
At the time, Mahallati defended the fatwā by arguing that other Islamic countries supported Iran’s stance toward Rushdie.
“I think that if Western countries really believe [in] and respect freedom of speech, therefore they should also respect our freedom of speech,” Mahallati told Reuters. “We certainly use that right in order [to] express ourselves, our religious beliefs, in the case of any blasphemous statement against sacred Islamic figures.”
Bazargan also responded to accusations that her protest movement peddles Islamophobia and aligns with pro-Trump politicians.
“We are none of that,” she said. “We are just victims of an Islamic regime, and that’s what we are talking about.”
Although the College has yet to formally address the protests, Bazargan’s commitment has not diminished.
“We are also going after politicians — we have started [reaching out to] some contacts and we are asking some citizens of Cleveland to contact and talk to them,” Bazargan said. “We are trying to organize some other pressures coming directly from the government. But for sure we won’t let this go because it is not acceptable that somebody who was involved in such atrocity continues teaching students.”
As they reflected on the Oberlin community’s response to the Mahallati issue toward the end of their College career, Bernstein described a lack of understanding and compassion for the protesters. They expressed hope that the coming protest would change the tides in the community’s acknowledgement of the allegations against Mahallati.
“I really hope that there’s more attention to this protest,” Bernstein said. “I hope there’s more flyers or publicity or conversations on social media. I don’t know what it will take to get people to care, but the people that are protesting are in mourning for a very real issue. At the very least some support would be awesome.”
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