After a series of international protests, apologists from the Alliance Against the Islamic Regime of Iran will return to Oberlin to protest the start of the Class of 2022 on June 5. The demonstration will mark the third time that activists have protested against the employment of religion teacher Mohammad Jafar. Mahallati in Oberlin. Mahallati was accused of covering up crimes against humanity when he was Iran’s representative to the UN in the 1980s.
According to Lawdan Bazargan, the protest organizer and sister of a victim of the 1988 massacre, the next protest will be mobile, unlike the more stationary protests they have staged before. Protesters planned a highly visual event to grab the attention of members of the public at the launch.
“We want to walk around and hopefully talk to as many people as possible and embarrass the College as much as possible,” Bazargan said.
Sophie Bernstein, a fourth-year student and Iranian-American, expressed hope that the Commencement protest will draw wider support than the last protest, which drew only a small crowd.
“Hopefully because this is the start, people who aren’t students will pay attention,” Bernstein said. “I think Oberlin College has let these protesters down in a lot of ways. I hope a larger audience at Commencement would be more sympathetic than people so far.
Bernstein specifically noted the lack of student response to the protest movement.
“There’s been a lot of refusal to talk about Professor Mahallati, especially because he’s tenured and still works here,” Bernstein said. “I think it’s worrying when there are such serious allegations against someone, people aren’t willing to have a conversation…especially because [the protesters] keep coming back – it’s not like the problem is solved for those affected. Oberlin prides itself on being a school centered on social justice, but there are people who demand justice and their pleas go unanswered.
Since May 12, the AAIRIA has rallied its members across the United States and around the world to protest Mahallati’s continued employment at the College. Groups will continue to demonstrate in a few other US cities before culminating their movement in Oberlin early next month.
The group chose locations to target specific individuals, from board 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 refused Reviewrequest for comment.
Bazargan also commented on a recently resurfaced 1989 Reuters article in which Mahallati defended fatwā issued against Salman Rushdie after the publication of his novel, Satanic Verses. Although he was not surprised that Mahallati supported the fatwā, as his position required him to uphold the dictates of the theocratic rule, Bazargan expressed shock that the College continued to employ Mahallati.
“He said at the time that if Westerners believe in free speech, that’s our free speech,” Bazargan said. “Can you believe it? Putting a bounty on someone’s head is free speech – and this guy teaches you ethics and morality.
At the time, Mahallati defended the fatwā by arguing that other Islamic countries supported Iran’s position towards Rushdie.
“I think if Western countries really believe [in] and respect freedom of speech, so they must also respect our freedom of speech,” Mahallati told Reuters. “We certainly use this right to [to] express ourselves, our religious beliefs, in the event of any blasphemous statements against sacred Islamic personalities.
Bazargan also responded to accusations that his protest movement peddles Islamophobia and aligns itself with pro-Trump politicians.
“We are none of that,” she said. “We are just victims of an Islamic regime, and that is what we are talking about.”
Although the College has yet to officially respond to the protests, Bazargan’s commitment has not diminished.
“We also go after politicians – we started [reaching out to] some contacts and we’re asking some citizens of Cleveland to contact them and talk to them,” Bazargan said. “We are trying to organize other pressure coming directly from the government. But for sure we will not let this go because it is not acceptable that someone who has been involved in such atrocities continues to teach students.
As they reflected on the Oberlin community’s response to the Mahallati question near the end of their college careers, Bernstein described a lack of understanding and compassion for the protesters. They expressed hope that the upcoming protest would be a game-changer in the community’s acknowledgment of the allegations against Mahallati.
“I really hope there’s more attention to this protest,” Bernstein said. “I hope there will be more flyers, publicity or conversations on social media. I don’t know what it will take for people to care, but people protesting are grieving for a very real problem. At the very least, some support would be great.