Oberlin College is defending one of its professors, Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, a former Iranian diplomat. He stands accused of helping to cover up the mass killings of thousands of dissidents and members of the Baha’i faith at a notorious prison massacre that took place in Iran in 1988.
In the face of protests, petitions, and letters from the families of the victims of these mass killings, who assert Mahallati used his position as an Iranian diplomat at the United Nations to help cover up the atrocities, Oberlin has stuck by its professor, stating there is no evidence that he had any direct knowledge of the prison massacre, which was declared a crime against humanity by the Canadian Parliament in 2013.
In October 2020, Mahallati declared he had no knowledge of the atrocity he is accused of helping to cover up. In November 2020, he declared he was only doing his job when he said what he said at the UN. (More about that below.)
On Oct. 12, 2021, the school issued the following statement: “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 school further stated: “Since coming to Oberlin in 2007, Professor Mahallati has become a tenured professor of religion. Over the years, as a scholar and a teacher, he has developed a reputation for espousing religious tolerance and seeking peace and understanding between all people. His record at Oberlin includes no instances of the anti-Semitic behavior of which has been accused.”
According to Oberlin’s Communications Director Scott Wargo, Mahallati is still on the faculty — and still teaching — at Oberlin College.
Here are five things that people need to know about Iran’s man at Oberlin.
- Mahallati Represented a Regime That Targeted Baha’is With Polemics, Repression, and Violence
If administrators, faculty members, and students at Oberlin are interested in assessing the Mahallati’s role in covering up the hostility and violence against the Baha’is in Iran, they should consult Human Rights, the UN and the Bahai’s in Iran, a text written by Nazilea Ghanea and published by George Ronald in 2002.
Chapter four of this text provides extensive detail of the UN’s efforts to prevent the mistreatment and oppression of Baha’is in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution which ended with the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The text quotes, without mentioning by name, numerous statements made by Mahallati at UN bodies.
This text, which acknowledges that Baha’is were often brutally mistreated under the Shah who was ousted in 1979, also documents the acceleration of hostility toward this community which took place once Ayatollah Khoemeni became supreme leader of the country. In 1978, a year before the revolution, Khomeini himself told a reporter in France that the Baha’is were “a political faction; they are harmful. They will not be accepted.”
Ghanea reports that “Khomeini continuously asserted his claim that the Baha’is in Iran acted as agents of Jews and Israel. He also made passionate appeals such as, “The Koran and Islam are in danger. The independence of the state and the economy are threatened by a take-over by the Zionists, who in Iran have appeared in the guise of Baha’is.’”
The period of 1979 to 1988 witnessed the start of the Islamic Revolution, its establishment and internal consolidation, and ended with the death of Khomeini and the ensuing change of leadership. During period religious minorities suffered greatly as symbols of foreign interference in Iran. Religious minorities in Iran have long been portrayed as being foreign puppets and symbols of Western interference. It is therefore not surprising that they became the conspicuous victims of mass hatred during this period.
During this time, Baha’is in Iran were forced out of their jobs, denied their pensions (and even forced to pay their salaries back), and witnessed the destruction of their central place of worship in Iran, the House of Bab, located in Shiraz — Mahallati’ s hometown — in 1979. In the early 1980s they also witnessed the kidnapping and forced disappearance of many of their leaders at the hands of the regime Mahallati represented at the United Nations.
Despite all this, Mahallati would have his students and colleagues at Oberlin believe that he knew nothing about the mass killing of Baha’is and political prisoners in 1988. These killings were an extension of a campaign of state-sponsored propaganda, oppression, and violence that had been going on for a decade during which Mahallati worked for the regime. Anti-Baha’i propaganda and violence were part and parcel of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the revolution that established this republic. Given the nature of the regime that Mahallati represented at the UN, it beggars belief that he was not aware of mass killings perpetrated by the regime in 1988.
Oberlin Review’s Take
Oberlin’s school newspaper, The Oberlin Review, which has done heroic work highlighting Mahallati’s background, responds to the notion that Mahallati did not know about the mass killings in Iran as follows:
Mahallati was Iran’s ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations between 1987 and 1989. Mahallati claims that, since he was in New York during that summer, he did not know about the killings as they were happening. This could very well be true. However, within a few months of the executions, there were several instances where Mahallati was confronted about the killings. Instead of publicly calling for a detailed investigation or speaking out against his own government, he insisted on an alternate narrative of events and denied that the executions took place. This is not the conduct of an innocent or ignorant official — rather, it points to deliberate actions taken to hide the atrocities committed by Iran from the world.
Even if Mahallati did not hear from his own government about the executions, he could not have remained ignorant for long. Between August and December 1988, Amnesty International sent 16 Urgent Action notices, calling for activists to protest the unjust executions of political dissidents. These activists relentlessly sent letters to the head of Iran’s Supreme Court, Iran’s Minister of Justice, and diplomatic representatives of Iran, demanding that Iran cease the executions.
Furthermore, on Nov. 9, 1988, U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions S. Amos Wako wrote and published reports of Iranian prisoners being executed, detailing the transfer of their corpses. Similar reports were sent by Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, U.N. special representative on the human rights situation in Iran. Mahallati met with Pohl on Nov. 29, 1988.
This Editorial Board believes the evidence proves that, within a matter of months, Mahallati was aware of the killings.
And yet, in his Nov. 29 meeting with Pohl, he claimed that the victims were killed in battle, rather than executed. In his official capacity as ambassador, he never backtracked this claim, even though human rights agencies have proven it to be false.
The notion that Mahallati remained ignorant of the 1988 mass killings while at the UN is simply untenable in light of the evidence.
- Mahallati has told two different stories regarding his response to the 1988 mass killings in Iran.
When the controversy surrounding Mahallati’s presence at Oberlin first erupted, he said he knew nothing about the 1988 mass killings in Iran. In October 2020, he declared, “I categorically deny any knowledge and therefore responsibility regarding mass executions in Iran when I was serving at the United Nations.”
After a year of withering controversy, he changed his story. In a statement issued through his lawyer on Nov. 5, 2021, he declared, “The official positions I took at the United Nations during the time I served do not portray my personal views. I was doing my job, delivering the official statements of Iran to the U.N.”
Here are a few questions Oberlin students should ask of their professor:
So which is it?
Did you not know of the killings as they were taking place or were you just doing your job when you defended your government against the allegations of mass killings that you had every good reason to believe were taking place given the nature of the regime you represented at the UN? Do you really expect us to believe that you never attempted “to conceal the facts once they were revealed” as stated by your lawyer?
- Mahallati Echoed Khomeini’s anti-Baha’i Propaganda at the UN.
In the early 1980s, after the oppression of the Baha’is in Iran began to accelerate under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, Mahallati enjoyed observer status at UN human rights bodies. In this capacity Mahallati responded to many allegations leveled against Iran at the UN’s Commission on Human Rights and the commission’s Subcommittee on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities.
A review of the historical record at the United Nations indicates that Mahallati asserted the Baha’is were somehow in cahoots with Israel and seeking to undermine Iranian society. This was a central theme in the statements made by Ayatollah Khoemeni before and during his time in power. In sum, Mahallati deployed the arguments used to promote mass hatred against the Baha’is in Iran at the United Nations.
(To see how this plays out, please see Appendix A below.)
- Judging from the writings of his students, Mahallati has done an effective job promoting disinformation in the classroom at Oberlin.
Mahallati, who used to post his students’ work on a blog, has since deleted these essays, and with good reason: they reveal the misinformation broadcast in his classroom. For example, one of Mahallati’s students describes Israel as having “cut off” negotiations with the Palestinians in 2001, when in reality it was Arafat who said no to the Clinton Parameters.
Another paper prepared for one of Mahallati’s classes portrays Israel, which treats its religious and ethnic minorities better than any other country in the Middle East, as oppressing Arabs and Muslims within its borders. This same paper portrays antisemitism solely as a result of nationalism, without acknowledging the role anti-Jewish polemics inherent in Christianity and Islam have played in fomenting Jew-hatred in Europe and the Middle East.
And another paper falsely reports that under Islam, “Jews were a protected class, and all people of the book were granted religious liberty and legal equality.” The notion that the Jews were a “protected” class and granted equality and liberty is simply false. As documented in numerous texts, enmity toward non-Muslims, Jews and Christians especially, is explicit in the canonical sources of Islam. The Koran, the Hadiths, and the biography of Muhammad, all authoritative sources for Muslims, call for the conquest and conversion of non-Muslims into the faith. Christians and Jews have not historically been a “protected” class, but a targeted class, subject to terrible violence in Muslim-majority environments whenever they have agitated for equality and freedom. Expressions of tolerance as enunciated by the Abraham Accords and the Marrakesh Declaration are great signs of hope, but history must not be distorted.
The text 111 Questions on Islam: Samir Khalil Samir, S.J. on Islam and the West, co-authored by Giorgio Paolucci and Camille Eid reveals that sharia, or Islamic law, enshrines Muslim dominance over non-Muslims and male dominance over women in Muslim-majority environments. This reality should not be ignored.
- Since becoming a fulltime academic, Mahallati has portrayed Iran as having peaceful intentions toward the rest of the world despite its pursuit of nuclear weapons and support for Hezbollah. He has done this under the aegis of promoting peace and friendship.
In his 2016 book Ethics of War and Peace in Iran and Shi’i Islam published by the University of Toronto, Mahallati tells us that the intellectual undercurrents in Iran are about peace and pluralism, but these messages are undermined by the Iranian government, which keeps sending contradictory messages about its role in the international system. For example, the Iranian people condemned the violent attacks on 9/11, Mahallati claims, before he admits that it is “difficult to reconcile the compassionate and sympathetic Iranian public with images of Iranians marching by the hundreds and burning flags on the anniversary of the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran on 4 November 1979.”
While we’re on the topic of contradictory messaging, Mahallati reports that numerous religious leaders in Iran have issued rulings (fatwas) against possessing and using nuclear weapons. But for some reason, Mahallati fails to inform his readers that Iranian leaders have regularly called for Israel’s destruction. Mahallati reports that some leaders in Iran are even considering the possibility of making peace with Israel, if, of course, Israelis “get rid of their dangerous objectives and beliefs.”
Again, who has the dangerous objectives and beliefs? Israel or Iran, whose leaders have been calling for Israel’s destruction for decades?
The way Mahallati describes it, Iran’s bad actions are the result of clumsiness and ineptitude, not willful hostility. The actions of other actors in the region are the result of evil intentions. A close reading of the text reveals it is more of an effort to exculpate Iran and Shi’i Muslims for their bad acts while highlighting the actions of Sunni and Arab Muslims as great sins. Mahallati condemns ISIS, a Sunni terrorist organization, but makes no reference to Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed organization which has been terrorizing people throughout the world since its founding in the early 1980s.
And of course, there’s not one word about the persecution of the Baha’i community in his book, which gives very soft treatment to the killings of numerous Iranian citizens at the hands of the government in the aftermath of the 2009 election in Iran. Mahallati describes the huge protests as “street clashes.”
Given his soft treatment of the well-documented human rights abuses in Iran, it seems reasonable to ask just how free Mahallati is to condemn the government for which he worked. In a Nov. 5, 2021 letter to an Oberlin dean, Mahallati stated “I firmly believe in the liberties granted by the U.S. Constitution, including freedom of religion, speech and academic liberties. By the same token, I believe that no people or state should be exempt from academic criticism.”
That’s all well and good, but what would happen if Professor Mahallati were to exercise the right to free speech acknowledged (not “granted”) by the U.S. Constitution and offer a full-throated condemnation of the regime that he represented at the UN?
Students at Oberlin might want to ask Mahallati, who promotes the values of forgiveness and friendship (citing, for example, the writings of Hannah Arendt), if he has ever publicly expressed remorse for broadcasting anti-Baha’i propaganda at the UN while members of this community were being forcibly disappeared in Iran.
What has he done to bridge the chasm between the Baha’is and the Iranian government, which continues to oppress this community?
Below is a non-exhaustive account of how Mohammad Jafar Mahallati downplayed human rights abuses in Iran while representing that country in the UN. For more information, please consult The Oberlin Review.
Aug. 25, 1982
Mahallati portrayed the Baha’i in Iran as Zionist traitors in league with the Iranian secret service during the 35th session of the Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities on Aug. 25, 1982. “With regard to the Baha’is,” Mahallati said,
a set of documents had been discovered in a former Savak centre providing irrefutable evidence of the connection between the Baha’is and the Zionist regime. It would be recalled that Mr. Hoveida, who had long been Prime Minister under the Shah, had been a Baha’i. There was evidence that in 1967 the Baha’is had provided the Israelis with help amounting to millions of dollars; on [t]hat occasion, Iran had publicly shown its gratitude to Mr. Hoveida for the great services he had rendered to the Zionist cause.
In Human rights, the UN, and the Baha’is, Nazila Ghanea reports “none of these documents were reproduced at the Sub-Commision as might be expected.” She continues: “If an overt link between the Baha’i Faith and either Zionism or the Shah’s secret police — SAVAK — could have been ‘irrefutably’ proved, it would have most certainly been decisive in dropping the Baha’i issue from the Commission [on Human Rights] and Subcommission’s Agenda.” (It wasn’t.)
She also adds, “Perhaps the alleged Iranian government documents demonstrated that the Baha’i community in Iran had been sent financial donations to their ‘World Centre’ in Haifa? If so, it would not be surprising that this ‘evidence’ was not shared.”
To give some context, the author adds that the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief affirms the freedom to “establish and maintain appropriate charitable or humanitarian institutions” and to “solicit and receive” contributions. In other words, the Baha’is in Iran were fully within their rights to send funds to support the faith’s World Center in Haifa.
The author also reports that the Baha’is were regular victims of oppression at the hands of the Savak under the Shah, indicating that the link between the Baha’is and the Shah’s secret police “cannot be taken at face value.”
And Ghanea also declares that while Hoveida was not necessarily a member of the Baha’i faith, his father was, but the Prime Minister himself had never claimed to be a member of the faith, nor had he ever been registered as a member by the Iranian Baha’i community. “In any case,” she writes, “even if he had been a Baha’i, this cannot in itself criminalize the rest of the Baha’i community in Iran, nor should it make Baha’is in general less deserving of being granted their human rights.”
February 18, 1983
Mahallati offered similar testimony on February 18, 1983 when he spoke before the UN Commission on Human Rights responding to a representative of the Baha’i community who spoke about the plight of the community in Iran. Mahallati declared that other religious groups in Iran were not complaining about life under the Islamic Republic, only the Baha’is. “If this country had displayed intolerance against political and religious groups, it was surprising that they too had not come to make complaints to the Commission. That fact clearly revealed that the allegations of the Baha’is were a pretext to enable that non-governmental organization to wage a propaganda war against his country.”
In his 2000 book A Concise Encyclopedia of the Baha’i Faith, Peter Smith recounts the long history of persecution endured by the adherents of the Baha’i faith in Iran. Smith writes of a “‘culture of hatred’ whereby the Baha’i’s are demonized and dehumanized by their opponents” in Iran. While adherents of the faith have been oppressed in Nazi Germany, Egypt, and the Soviet Union, Smith declares that “Nowhere has the same ‘culture of hatred’ developed against the Baha’is as in Iran.”
Smith writes that things were never very good for the Baha’is in Iran, but that the oppression really took off in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution in 1979, when anti-Baha’i groups “enjoyed political influence.”
“Thus, there was a systematic endeavor to destroy all Baha’i organization (including the judicial murder of many Baha’i leaders) as well as to pressurize the rank-and file to apostatize: Bahai’s were arrested, dismissed from their jobs, and not allowed to attend school or university,” Smith wrote. “Baha’i sacred sites and burial grounds were also destroyed,” Smith reported, adding that Baha’i marriages and divorces are not recognized by the state, and murderers of a Baha’i adherent were allowed to walk free “because their victim was an ‘unprotected infidel.’”
After falsely accusing the Baha’i in Iran of a propaganda war, Mahallati went on to state that
… nobody, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, was exempted from the application of the laws concerning espionage, terrorism, drug-trafficking and other inhuman activities; on the other hand, faith and belief were not subjected to any persecution in Iran.
The implication is clear — the Baha’is in Iran were spies, terrorists, drug traffickers, and prostitutes — and the summary arrests and executions that they endured under Khomeini were legitimate.
Ghanea responds to these allegations as follows:
Had the Iranian delegate first brought evidence that: 1) membership of the Baha’i community necessarily involved the promotion of prostitution and drug abuse, 2) these activities were prohibited by law in Iran and 3) officially proclaimed, he might have been able to demonstrate the legality of his government’s action in restricting this aspect of the ‘manifestation’ of Baha’i beliefs. However, his government would still have not legitimately been able to: 1) generally behave in a discriminatory manner toward all Baha’is, whether as individuals or as a community, 2) to justify any coercion in the freedom of individuals to adopt Baha’i beliefs, 3) to restrict the right of Baha’i parents to bring up their children with a Baha’i education or 4) limit in any way the right to believe for Baha’is. Whether in Iran or Europe, restrictions on the right to work, the right to education, the right to freedom of movement and certainly restrictions on the right to life on the basis of religion or belief cannot be justified.
March 7, 1983
Another example of this type of demonization came on March 7, 1983, when Mahallati condemned a delegate from the Netherlands for expressing concern over the welfare of the Baha’is under the rule of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Sepaking before the 39th session of the 50th meeting of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, Mahallati stated:
It was not for the delegation of the Netherlands to consider the Baha’i group as a religious minority. The problem was not religious but political; the Baha’i community conducted immoral activities under the cover of religion.
One question Oberlin students and professors at Oberlin might want to ask Professor Mahallati is if “conducting immoral activities under the cover of religion” might be a better description of the Iranian backed terrorist organization Hezbollah, whose leaders have been credibly accused of running prostitution and drug-trafficking rings.
The upshot is that during his time at the UN, Mahallati repeated the lies his government told to justify violence against Baha’is in Iran to a global audience. A straight causal line cannot be drawn between Mahallati’s statements at the UN in the early 1980s and the prison massacre in Iran in 1988, but his statements did demonize the Baha’i community in Iran on a global stage and helped to obscure the suffering this community suffered under the regime he represented.