Updated: Mahallati Not Playing it Straight With Oberlin About Family History

Feb. 9, 2022 Note: This article has been amended to include information about the allegations leveled at Mahallati by his critics at Oberlin College. 

For the past several months, Oberlin College has been rocked by controversy surrounding one of its professors, Mohammad Jaffar Mahallati, a former diplomat for the Islamic Republic of Iran.

He stands accused of covering up a mass killing in Iran while serving as a diplomat for that country in the 1980s. People at Oberlin argue that his alleged role in the coverup disqualifies him from serving as a professor at the school.

He also stands accused of affirming Israel’s destruction during a speech in 1989 and engaging in anti-Baha’i polemics in 1982 and 1983.

Oberlin administrators have stood by Mahallati. While there has been relative silence about the controversy in recent weeks, it is not going away because the narrative Mahallati has offered to the school’s administrators has two major problems.

First, he has told two contradictory stories about his alleged role in the coverup of a mass killing that took place in Iran in 1988. At first, he said he didn’t know about it, and then he said he was only doing his job at the UN when he denied the mass killing took place.

In response to the allegations that he engaged in anti-Israel polemics at the UN in 1989, the professor has declared he currently supports a two-state solution.

In response to the well-documented allegation of espousing anti-Baha’i polemics at the UN in 1982 and 1983, Mahallati has offered an oversimplified narrative that portrays his family as an unambiguous force for religious tolerance in Iran, protecting both Jews and Bahai’s from oppression in that country.

In fact, Professor Mahallati’s grandfather played an important role in the oppression of Baha’is in Iran before his death in 1981. The record indicates that while Professor Mahallati’s grandfather, Ayatollah Bahaoddin Mahallati, who taught Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, did issue some ambiguous statements against anti-Baha’i violence in the late 1970s, they did little to reduce mob violence against this community.

In context, it looks more like Mahallati’s grandfather was trying to protect the reputation of the Iranian Revolution as it was taking place than he was actually trying to stop, as a matter of principle, the oppression and murder of Baha’is in Fars province where he served as a preeminent religious leader.

This assessment is underscored by the role that Ayatollah Bahaoddin Mahallati played in depriving Baha’is in Iran of their livelihoods in 1980. In particular, the Ayatollah issued a fatwa declaring that the Iranian government should not give money to its Baha’i employees from its coffers. This ruling was used to justify depriving Baha’is of their jobs and even their pensions.

To make matters worse, there is testimony from Baha’i activists indicating that Ayatollah Bahaoddin Mahallati played a role in the destruction of an important Baha’i shrine in Shiraz, calling the building a “house of heresy.”

These are not the actions of someone interested in protecting the Baha’is in Iran. It’s the behavior of someone intent on destroying this community.

Professor Mahallati’s anti-Baha’i rhetoric at the UN in the early 1980s did not contradict his grandfather’s hostile attitude toward the Baha’is in Iran, it aligned with it. The notion that Professor Mahallat’s family was a friend to the Baha’is in Iran is simply untenable.

The Background

Professor Mohammad Jaffar Mahallati, who currently serves as the Nancy Shrom Dye Chair in Middle East and North African Studies at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, has been credibly accused of covering up the 1988 mass killings of Baha’is and political dissidents by the Iranian regime while representing the Islamic Republic of Iran before the UN. This is the main charge against Mahallati.

This accusation has been leveled at Mahallati by the families of the victims in numerous letters, statements, and protests directed at Oberlin’s administrators. Last fall, protesters gathered at the school to call for his departure.

The school’s administration continues to keep Mahallati on the payroll (which is ironic given the role his grandfather played at getting Baha’i kicked off the payroll in Iran in 1980).

Mahallati’s Defense

In his defense, Mahallati has offered two main explanations. When the allegations first arose, he said he didn’t know about the murders taking place in his home country because he was working at the UN in New York at the time of the massacres.

In October 2020, Mahallati declared, “I categorically deny any knowledge and therefore responsibility regarding mass executions in Iran when I was serving at the United Nations.”

In November 2021, after months of intense scrutiny, Mahallati invoked the doctrine of diplomatic immunity to provide cover for his denials at the UN. He said this in a Nov. 5, 2021 letter to an administrator at Oberlin. “I was doing my job, delivering the official statements of Iran to the U.N.,” he wrote.

In sum, his story shifted from “I knew nothing” about the killings to “I was doing my job” when he denied they took place. The contradiction between the two statements — and their ominous echoes to similar denials offered elsewhere in recent history — are obvious, yet for one reason or another, Mahallati still has his job at Oberlin.

The Nature of the Regime Mahallati Represented

Even if one asserts there is no logical contradiction between, “I didn’t know” and “I was only doing my job,” the question of what Professor Mahallati knew about the 1988 mass killings of political dissidents in prisons throughout the country while serving as an Iranian diplomat to the UN is almost beside the point.

The very nature of the regime he agreed to represent before UN bodies in the 1980s was well known to just about anyone. The Islamic Republic of Iran dealt with religious minorities and political dissidents with great brutality from the very beginning.

A close reading of Iranian history, for example the one provided by Fereydun Vahman,  professor emeritus and scholar of Iranian Studies at the University of Copenhagen, in his text 175 Years of Persecution: A History of the Babis & Baha’is of Iran (Oneworld Publications, 2019) makes it perfectly clear that the Islamic Republic of Iran was intent on destroying the Baha’i community from the moment in seized power in 1979.

Anti-Baha’i policies were a central element of the Islamic Republic’s ruling strategy before Mahallati ever left Iran to represent the country as a diplomat. By accepting his post as Iran’s representative to UN bodies in the early 1980s, Mahallati agreed to represent a regime that had already committed numerous crimes against humanity against the Baha’i.

As Vahman recounts, lawmakers worked assiduously to write laws to deny constitutional protection to the rights of Bahai’s in Iran. Baha’i leaders were kidnapped, subjected to kangaroo courts, tortured, and executed on false charges of being spies for the United States and Israel. These trials were broadcast on radio and television and their executions announced in newspapers.

This is a screenshot of the Ettelaat Newspaper of October 5, 1981. The four images in the pictures are men who denounced their Baha’i to to keep their property and avoid further oppression. To this end, they purchased an advertisement in the newspaper declaring they “have no connection with the Baha’i Zionist Organization either in Iran or abroad and hereby declare [their] full belief in the sacred principles of Islam and Shiism with complete disgust with this empty cult.” The  oppressive nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran played itself out in the pages of the newspapers of the country.

Mahallati knew the nature of the regime he was representing at the UN. The nature of the regime manifested itself in the newspapers and in the streets of the country. The idea that Mahallati didn’t know about the misdeeds of the regime he was representing is simply  untenable, which helps explain why he changed his story to, “I was doing my job.”

Mahallati’s Grandfather Oppressed Baha’is

To distance himself from the crimes of the regime he represented as a diplomat and his own comments about the Baha’i at the UN, Professor Mahallati has portrayed himself as a scion of a family that assiduously protect the rights of the Baha’is in Iran.

In the previously mentioned letter to an Oberlin dean, Mahallati invoked the memory of his father, Ayatollah Mahallati, to portray his family as part of a bulwark against the oppression of religious and ethnic minorities in Iran. Here is what he wrote:

When my father Ayatollah Mahallati passed away in Shiraz in June 2000, the head of the Shiraz Jewish community attended the funeral, brought the largest flower rack to the procession and in expressing his sincere condolence, said, “You must not feel alone in losing your father, because he was our father as well.” This statement refers not only to how my father protected the Jewish community in Shiraz during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, but also to the legacy of the family in doing so during the 19th and 20th centuries since they began their religious leadership in Shiraz, Iran.

The Bahai community must also remember that it was Ayatollah Mahallati in Shiraz who risked his life to protect them and save their lives against mobs in the Sa’di village of Shiraz in the early revolutionary days of 1980s.

He also declared, “For those who are familiar with Shiraz history (one of Iran’s oldest and largest cities), the efforts of the Mahallati family to protect religious minorities is exemplary in the history of modern Iran.”

Here, Professor Mahallati is banking on his status as the scion of a powerful religious family in Fars Province in Iran, where the city of Shiraz is located. Shiraz is the home of the House of the Bab, the founder of the Baha’i faith. This shrine was destroyed on Sept. 1, 1979, during the height of the Iranian Revolution, which installed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as supreme leader of Iran. A Shi’ite mosque was built in its place.

Professor Mahallati’s grandfather, Ayatollah Bahaoddin Mahallati, was the Ayatollah in this city at the time of the shrine’s destruction. Bahoaddin died in August 1981.

A mosque has been built over the razed ruins of the House of Báb in Shiraz, Iran. The Baha’i shrine was destroyed in 1979. (Photo By NicholasJB, Wikimedia)

Destruction of Baha’i Shrine

There is testimony indicating that the destruction of the Baha’i shrine in Shiraz was conducted with the approval of Professor Mahallati’s grandfather. A 2011 report produced by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (“A Faith Denied: The Persecution of the Bahai’s in Iran,”) recounts a conversation a member of the Baha’i faith had with the Ayatollah in an attempt to prevent the shrine’s destruction. The report states:

[Mahallati] knew all the details and said, “yes, that is the House of Heresy. It has been so for 130 years and now it should be demolished.” I replied, “the brick and wood of a house cannot be heresy. Besides, what is the fault of innocent people living on this street or the houses in the vicinity that they should be constantly threatened with the demolition of their houses?” His reply was, “these people either should become Muslims, or anything may befall them.” I replied, “Mr. Mahallati, sir, is this the meaning of Islamic justice? What about the humanitarian principles of Islam?” His answer was, “those are for Jews and Christians. But these people (Bahá’ís) either should become Muslim, or it will not be a problem if their homes are demolished. That House of Heresy (House of the Báb) should also be destroyed.” When the conversation reached this point we thought there would be no use to continue… We departed with the understanding that Ayatollah Mahallati was one of the main architects of the demolition of the House.

This testimony seriously undercuts Professor Mahalllati’s narrative that his family protected the rights of Baha’is in Shiraz. His own grandfather is accused of affirming the destruction of a Baha’i shrine in 1979.

It’s becoming increasingly evident that Professor Mahallati is not playing it straight with the Oberlin community.

If there is evidence that Professor Mahallati’s father, the alleged defender of religious minorities, objected to the mistreatment of Baha’is, the professor needs to present it and not just allude to it as he did in his letter to the Oberlin community.

Documents Regarding Ayatollah Bahaoddin Mahallati

The historical record indicates that in the late 1970s, Bahaoddin Mahallati issued ambiguous statements condemning violence against religious minorities, but once the Islamic revolution had taken place, he legitimized an anti-Baha’i crackdown.

This information is available in the Archives of Baha’i Persecution in Iran. Numerous documents, originally written in Farsi and translated into English, indicate that Professor Mahallati’s grandfather, Ayatollah Bahaoddin Mahallati, condemned riots against minorities in public statements in the late 1970s.

1978

According to these archives, Ayatollah Bahoaddin Muhallati issued a statement on Dec. 18, 1978 that reads in English, in part, as follows:

This is to bring to the attention of all religious minorities and other [non-Muslim] sects that Muslims, in obedience to [their] divine ordinances, have no ill-intention regarding their properties and lives. In fact, they intensely detest and abhor any kind of abuse and mistreatment that they may suffer. According to reliable documents, any harm inflicted upon them is certainly not done by the Muslims. Based on the eyewitnesses’ [accounts], the authorities are not only negligent but also deliberately provoke and delay in preventing such incidents. All the religious authorities are in agreement with this matter.

This statement, which says that Muslims would never attack religious minorities, was issued three days after Baha’i leaders issued a statement of their own, which spoke of looting, arson, kidnapping, and forced conversions in Shiraz (Mahallati’s hometown) and Tehran. The statement reports that these acts took place after several weeks of threats of incitement. “In Shiraz, 60 homes looted,” it says.

It’s important to note that according to Fereydun Vahman, the violence described above was understood by the clergy to be incited by the Iranian secret police, ”with the ultimate intention of driving a wedge between the secular and religious wings of the revolution,” prompting them to declare “attacks on the homes and livelihoods of the Baha’is as unlawful.”

In other words, this was not a principled stand against anti-Baha’i violence, but an instrumental response to violence that was undermining the credibility of the revolution that ultimately turned Iran into a theocracy.

1979

According to another document published on the website of the Archives of Baha’i Persecution in Iran, Ayatollah Bahoaddin Mahallati issued another statement condemning mob violence on January 12, 1979. This document, reads in English, in part, as follows:

Any attempt towards destruction and arson and personal vengeance, and any act of aggression in any given situation against the lives and properties of any person in any position or rank, even the religious minorities and non-Muslim sects, is prohibited within the present time and condition, is against the will of God, and is detrimental to the Islamic movement. Abstain from every similar kind of action that would destroy the public properties. (Emphasis added.)

Note the phrase “is prohibited within the present time and condition.” That leaves open the possibility that at some point in the future, violence against religious minorities and non-Muslim sects would be accepted and tolerated. “Obviously, circumstances could change and the ban was not a matter of principle,” wrote Vahman.

In any event, Ayatollah Mahallati issued this statement the same day Baha’i leaders issued a statement of their own which declared in part:

During the month of December organized mobs attacked Bahá’ís and their properties in Shiraz and its environs. As a result of these attacks over 300 homes were either burned or destroyed, and some 200 looted. In these events 15 believers were beaten or wounded, and two were killed.

Baha’is Off the Payroll

There are other documents published by the Archives of Baha’i Persecution in Iran which detail Ayatollah Mahallati’s involvement in the oppression of the Baha’is soon after the revolution.

Two documents deal with the expulsion and legal prosecution of Baha’is at the Ministry of Education in Fars Province of which Shiraz is the capitol.

The first of these documents is an account published in Jomhouri Islami, the official newspaper of the Islamic Republic. On June 30, 1980, the account states that “forty-four individuals were dismissed on account of their belief in the Baha’i ideology.” It also states that after protests from people declaring that there were no legal grounds for these dismissals, “Ayatollah Dastghayb, Ayatollah Rabbani and Ayatollah Mahallati […] announced that payments from the Public Treasury to these individuals are unlawful and whoever violates this order will have broken the law.”

According to the Baha’i archives, Kayhan, a newspaper in Tehran, reported on the same date (June 30, 1980) about the expulsion of Baha’is from their government jobs. The article reports that the purging took place in the Ministry of Education in Fars province. “A cleansing process was carried out,” one official declared.

“A cleansing process.” We’ve seen such clinical references to the expulsion of human beings from their place in society before.

The same article also details a letter sent to Ayatollah Mahallati asking whether or not Baha’is are entitled to their pensions. The letter read in part, “Your explicit response is hereby requested as to whether or not Sharia law permits payment of salaries [pensions] to these individuals!”

The Ayatollah’s response is documented, among other places, in a third document published by the Baha’i archive indicating that on Sept. 5, 1980, Arak Machine Manufacturing, a company located in Iran, sent a letter to one of its employees, a Baha’i adherent, that reads in part, as follows:

[P]ayment from the Public Treasury to the Baha’is has been declared forbidden by Grand Ayatollahs Rabbani Shirazi Dastgheib and Mahallati and those who breach this edict will be considered wrong doers, please report to the plant as soon as possible and take action for the return of public properties [in your possession] and settle your account with the company. (Emphasis added.)

This document clearly indicates that the employee in question was subject to having his property confiscated as a result of an edict issued by Professor Mahallati’s grandfather, who died the following year.

Conclusion

Professor Mohammad Jaffar Mahallati should not be blamed for the actions of his grandfather, but the story he has told to Oberlin conveys a false impression about his family’s role as protector of the Baha’is in Shiraz.

Mahallati’s self-serving declaration that “the efforts of the Mahallati family to protect religious minorities is exemplary in the history of modern Iran” simply does not withstand scrutiny.