A group of Iranian-American human rights activists and their allies will be protesting at Oberlin College's graduation ceremony in Ohio on Sunday, June 5 to draw attention to the Islamist leanings of one of its most prominent (and controversial) faculty members, religion professor Mohammad Jaffar Mahallati. Mahallati stands accused of helping to cover up a mass killing of Iranian dissidents in the late 1980s.
Activists from a recently formed group, Alliance Against Islamic Regime of Iran Apologists (AAIRIA) are organizing the protest in an effort to highlight Mahallati's support for Islamist expansionism and his alleged ties to the repressive regime in Tehran, says organizer Lawdan Bazargan, whose brother Bijan was killed by the Iranian government in 1988. Bazargan said that in addition to seeking justice for her brother, she is protesting for dissidents currently in jail in Iran.
"People like Mahallati, with their false message of friendship and peace are the reason this brutal regime has stayed in power for the past 43 years," she said.
Mahallati, who denies being part of a cover up, has been the subject of a number of articles published by the school's newspaper, the Oberlin Review, since 2020. During the controversy, he has portrayed himself as a promoter of peace and friendship at Oberlin while sitting on the editorial board of an Iranian-based academic journal that has lauded the designated terrorist organization Hezbollah as a legitimate tool of Iranian influence and a force for good in the Middle East.
In addition to serving on the board of an academic journal that has promoted Hezbollah, Mahallati has put forth a narrative of Shi'a supremacism and Islamist expansionism in his native Farsi that seems to contradict the message of friendship, peace, and reconciliation he has promoted to Western audiences in English.
Mahallati, who became a professor at Oberlin in 2007, began his academic career in the U.S. at Columbia University in 1991 after serving as an Iranian diplomat in the 1980s. Mahallati has also taught at Princeton, Georgetown, and Yale. Three of the five schools he has taught at —Columbia, Georgetown, and Princeton — received funds from the Alavi Foundation, an Iranian charity which was successfully prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice for serving as a front group for the Iranian government in 2017.
During his time at Oberlin, Mahallati has cultivated his reputation as a peacemaker through lectures and with the publication of his 2016 book, Ethics of War and Peace in Iran and Shi'i Islam (University of Toronto Press), in which he portrays Iran as ready to extend the hand of friendship and peace with the United States and to accommodate Israel.
The violence and cruelty of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and IS in Iraq and Syria, Mahallati wrote, have provided the impetus for Iran to choose "the stance of a staunch supporter of nonviolence, both conceptually and institutionally."
Mahallati appears to promote different attitudes toward the West and the United States while writing in Farsi, however.
In 2013, Mahallati penned an article in Farsi for Iranian Diplomacy, a website run by Seyyed Mohammad Sadegh Kharraz, former deputy foreign minister for the regime.
A Farsi translator contacted by FWI explained that, in the text, Mahallati argues "the term 'Judeo-Christian civilization' is a myth created by America and that this myth "obscures the history of Christian antagonism to Jews and Muslim friendship to Jews."
The translator adds that to Mahallati, "the idea of Western and Islamic civilizations being in conflict is another American myth designed to continue the Cold War with Islam as a substitute for Communism."
According to the translator's summary, Mahallati asserts that "Iranian culture contains a system of ethics and international law that is superior to the current Western models" and that Islam's spread in the West was accelerated by 9/11." Consequently, "the West is now where 7th century AD Iran or the former Byzantine empire was" with "Western culture ... merging with the Islamic faith to create a new Western Islamic civilization." The translator indicates that Mahallati believes "it is extremely important for Iran to promote Shiism in the West so that Western Islam doesn't fall under the control of [Iran's] enemies like Saudi Arabia."
*Mahallati currently serves on the board of an Iran based journal, Sepehr-e-Siasat, which promotes ideas similar to those expressed in his 2013 article. For example, the journal recently published an article praising the violent Iranian proxy Hezbollah as "a regional power" that promotes Shiite identity and has taken "important measures to confront the regional domination system and the Zionist regime."
Mohammad Bagher Khoramshad, who serves as the political deputy of the Iranian Ministry of Interior also serves on the editorial board of the journal. Khoramshad's boss is Ahmad Vahidi, former IRGC Quds Force commander– who is subject to an INTERPOL Red Notice for his alleged role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center that killed 85 people and injured hundreds. Khoramshad is known for backing Islamist reforms at Iranian universities—including preventing women from wearing makeup and requiring the "proper" hijab.
Gholam Reza Behrouzlak, another member of Sepehr-e-Siasat's editorial board, is also the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Islamic Awakening Studies. Behrouzlak has praised Qasem Soleimani, the late commander of the Quds Force of the IRGC, killed in 2020 by U.S. forces, declaring "The blood of the martyr has always been a beacon to Islamic society," and that "With the martyrdom of Haj Qasem Soleimani, we witnessed the awakening of a national pride and a spirit of Islam and the outpouring of patriotism and people reorienting themselves towards God."
Sunday's demonstration will be the third protest targeting Mahallati to take place at Oberlin since late 2021. Previous protests highlighted Mahallati's alleged role in the cover up of a mass killing of dissidents perpetrated by the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1988 while he served as an Iranian diplomat.
Mahallati has denied the allegations, stating in October 2020 that he did not know about the killings as they were taking place. In November 2021 he declared, "I was doing my job, delivering the official statements of Iran to the U.N." during the controversy over the mass killings in Iranian prisons.
Oberlin officials and Mahallati himself have not responded to requests for comment.
*Update: June 1, 2022: Professor Mahallati's name has been removed from the masthead of Sepehr-e-Siasat, which promoted an article praising Hezbollah. The professor's name was removed sometime after the publication of the FWI article published above, which was the first to document his affiliation with Sepehr-e-Siasat. A screenshot of his name on the masthead can be seen here.
Susannah Johnston is the investigative reporter for Focus on Western Islamism (FWI).