Protesters from across the country gathered at the Tappan Square Memorial Arch on Tuesday to call for action against a college professor accused of covering up the 1988 mass political assassinations in Iran while serving as representative from Iran to the United Nations. Protesters called on the College to conduct a transparent investigation into the allegations against religion professor and Nancy Schrom Dye Chair in Middle East and North Africa Studies Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, and ultimately to fire him.
Tuesday’s protest featured 16 guest speakers who discussed their personal experiences of abuse and loss at the hands of the Iranian government and a skit depicting the executions carried out by the Iranian “Death Commission” in 1988. The protest organizers estimate that the event brought together around 150-200 people in person, as well as 100 people via Zoom. Lawdan Bazargan, the organizer of the protest and the sister of a victim of the 1988 massacre, has spoken out in her opposition to the College’s use of Mahallati since she filed allegations against him in October 2020 .
Last month, Director of Media Relations Scott Wargo sent a statement to the Review, who said Oberlin had concluded an investigation into the allegations against Mahallati and found no evidence to support those allegations.
“Oberlin deeply sympathizes with the pain and suffering caused by the executions in Iran,” the statement said. “After learning about the allegations against Professor Mahallati, Oberlin initiated his own process to determine their validity. After consulting a number of sources and assessing the public record, the College could not find any evidence to corroborate the allegations against Professor Mahallati, including that he had specific knowledge of the killings taking place in Iran.
However, activists and members of the Iranian diaspora believe that the College’s investigation did not really probe Mahallati’s past. Protesters who traveled to Tappan on Tuesday included many Iranian-Americans who lost loved ones in the 1988 massacre or who were otherwise affected by crimes perpetrated by the Iranian government.
Mehdi Keshavarz traveled to Oberlin from California for the day just to participate in the protest. Keshavarz explained that he came to the United States with very little means to escape the Iranian regime.
“A lot of people here have come from all over the country because everyone has lost one of their [their] close family members or friends, ”he said. “Me, I lost six of my roommates, my friends,… my cousins. Everyone suffers from this diet. We don’t want this guy Mr. Mahallati to come freely here and they hire him [at the] College in the United States. They have to see what happened to us – what is happening right now. This [does] don’t just belong to the past. It belongs to now, too. So I hope they can change their mind and make the right decision.
Bazargan said the College’s investigation into Mahallati was insufficient. She demanded transparency and called on the institution to deepen the historical record and publish its findings.
“It was a bogus investigation,” Bazargan said. “How can you investigate like that?” Of course, they don’t want to get to the bottom of the truth. No one wants to accept that they made mistakes. But… we’re not going to leave, and time is not on their side. If they think that by giving us a hard time, they are going to tire us out – for 43 years we have been fighting tyranny, then we are not going to back down.
However, Mahallati believes the evidence presented by the protesters does not accurately reflect the context in which his actions took place. The Review obtained a letter on Monday that Mahallati wrote to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences David Kamitsuka, in which Mahallati argues that the protests against him are politically motivated.
“Now, 30 years after leaving a government post, the current campaign against me is politically motivated and is a well-designed and well-orchestrated character attack using abusive propaganda literature,” Mahallati wrote.
The fourth year of the Iranian-American College, Sophie Bernstein, expressed her frustration with the College’s response to the allegations against Mahallati.
“I think it is very unreasonable that the administration did not see the organizers of this event and I think that [it] is trying to cover up something that is definitely true, ”Bernstein said. “I think it is not correct of him to specifically teach ethics and morals as a teacher here, especially when he has covered up mass murders of political activists. I think a lot of Oberlin students here, we take for granted the freedoms we have – for example, to question authority, to question government, to be gay, to be communist, … but our people have been murdered for it.
Bernstein was also frustrated that student participation was disappointing. “The student participation rate is quite disappointing, especially because we are practicing freedoms that the Iranian people do not have to this day,” said Bernstein.
“It is important to note that although we are talking about the 1980s, it still happens to this day with the new election of President Ebrahim Raisi – he was also found guilty of killing political prisoners and other people who oppose the Islamic Republic. “
Max Stuart, a freshman at the Conservatory, said he heard about the allegations against Mahallati before arriving in Oberlin, and echoed Bernstein’s sentiment about the number of students who came to the protest.
“I hope not only that he gets fired, but that he goes to jail,” Stuart said. “I’m encouraged to see a few students coming here, but it’s not as much as [it] should be.”
This fall, Mahallati teaches Muslim oral culture: Persian poetry in translation, music and calligraphy; Islam; and forgiveness in the Islamic and Christian tradition at a distance.