Iranian Oberlin professor urged murder of author Salman Rushdie

Iran’s former ambassador to the UN Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, now of Oberlin College, has now been confronted with an additional allegation about his role in a plot to assassinate Rushdie.

Salman Rushdie (photo credit: REUTERS)
Salman Rushdie
(photo credit: REUTERS)

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s former ambassador to the UN Mohammad Jafar Mahallati advocated the 1989 fatwa (decree) to assassinate the US and British writer Salman Rushdie for the author’s novel showing the Muslim prophet Muhammad irreverently.

Oberlin College’s embattled professor of Islamic studies is now confronted with an additional allegation about his role in a plot to assassinate one of the world’s most distinguished and famous writers.  

In an extensive 2018 report, Amnesty International said Mahallati was complicit in “crimes against humanity” for his reported cover-up of the massacre of at least 5,000 political dissidents in 1988.

According to a 1989 Reuters report, when asked about the then-supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa and the “right to put a bounty on someone's head,” Mahallati replied: "I think all Islamic countries agree with Iran. All Islamic nations and countries agree with Iran that any blasphemous statement against sacred Islamic figures should be condemned.

"I think that if Western countries really believe and respect freedom of speech, therefore they should also respect our freedom of speech. We certainly use that right in order to express ourselves, our religious beliefs, in the case of any blasphemous statement against sacred Islamic figures."

Mohammad Jafar Mahallati at TEDxTehran. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Mohammad Jafar Mahallati at TEDxTehran. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

After Khomeini issued his fatwa because of Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, the author was forced to go into hiding. Iran’s clerical regime increased the bounty on Rushdie’s life and refused to sign an agreement that would bar the assassination of Rushdie on European soil.

Khomeini’s successor Ali Khamenei continues to enforce the fatwa to kill Rushdie.

"GROWING UP in Iran, I remember how the state media and my teachers at school used to portray an evil picture of Rushdie, who deserved to die for his so-called ‘heinous crimes!" Hamid Charkhkar, who located the archived Reuters report from 1989, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. "It took me years to fully understand what Rushdie had done and how absurd it was to call for his killing.”

Charkhkar, an academic in the US who is a member of the Alliance Against Islamic Regime of Iran Apologists (AAIRIA), said that, “when I came across Mr. Mahallati’s statement defending the Fatwa against Rushdie, I was not surprised – it was the same position I had heard from officials in Iran, and many of them still support it today. I am puzzled, however, how Mahallati can teach at a prestigious school in the US such as Oberlin College, where freedom of expression should be indispensable.”

The Post sent press queries to Oberlin College and Mahallati.

In 1989, according to Reuters, author Norman Mailer and other American writers declared their solidarity with Rushdie: "It is our duty to form ranks behind him and our duty to state to the world that if he is ever assassinated it will then become our obligation to stand in his place.

"If he is ever killed for folly, we must be killed for the same folly,” he said.

"The spiritual corruption of the 20th century has entered into Muslim ranks as well,” Mailer said, accusing Khomeini and other Iranian clerics of issuing "the largest hit [murder] contract in history."

The Post could not locate any statements from Mahallati rejecting the fatwa against Rushdie since he left the Iranian foreign ministry in the late 1980s. In a 2020 email to the Post, Mahallati denied that he covered up the mass murder in 1988.

The Post sent a press query to Rushdie’s publisher at Penguin Random House. In 2005, Iran’s regime boycotted the Frankfurt book fair in Germany because the author was a guest speaker. AFP reported at the time that Iranian scholars said Rushdie should be killed; Tehran's foreign ministry said that “under the pretext of freedom of expression, [the book fair] invited a person who is hated in the Islamic world and created the opportunity for Salman Rushdie... to make a speech.”

THE POST obtained a letter from 50 UN-affiliated NGOs demanding that the UN launch an inquiry into Mahallati’s alleged crimes against humanity.

The human rights and civil society organizations demanded: “that Oberlin College… conduct an immediate and impartial investigation into the continued employment of Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, a former Iranian ambassador implicated in misleading the international community on crimes against humanity.”

Among the 50 signers of the letter were Hillel Neuer, United Nations Watch, Switzerland; Dr. Mukesh Kumar Mishra, Krityanand UNESCO Club, India; Khursheed Alam, Special Abilities Development Association, Pakistan; Mohammad Safi Ul Alam, Youth Foundation of Bangladesh; Olufemi Aduwo, Centre for Convention on Democratic Integrity, Nigeria; Walid Maalouf, Lebanese American Renaissance Partnership, United States; Mourad Lafkihen, Forum Méditerranéen pour la Promotion des Droit du Citoyen, Morocco; and Didier Kiyanga, Coup de Pouce, Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We urge you to issue a condemnation of Mohammad Jafar Mahallati and to demand a transparent and independent investigation of his continued employment at one of the leading post-secondary institutions in the United States," The letter concluded. "Ensuring that those who help hide human rights abuses are held to account is paramount and is a key step in achieving justice in the 1988 massacre.”

Iranian dissidents and their allies are staging protests against the businesses of Oberlin College trustees due to the refusal of the college’s president Carmen Twillie Ambar to meet with the families of victims from the 1988 massacre. Last week, Germans and Iranian dissidents protested the law firm of Greenberg Traurig in Berlin, which is partly owned by Charles Birenbaum, an Oberlin College trustee. The law firm represented Mahallati in 2020.

JILL PERRY, the managing director and chief marketing officer of Greenberg Traurig, told the Post in April that Mahallati “is no longer a client of our firm.”

Perry and Oberlin College have declined to answer questions about who paid for Mahallati’s legal fees.

After the Post queries, Oberlin College scrubbed the law firm and its lawyer Gregory W. Kehoe from its fact sheet defending Mahallati.

The Post secured a screenshot of the original fact sheet that lists Greenberg Traurig and Kehoe as Mahallati’s legal representation.

Greenberg Traurig and Oberlin College provided no explanation for airbrushing the names of Kehoe and the law firm from the college’s website.

The Post sent on Monday a new query to Birenbaum and Perry about Mahallati’s alleged advocacy of the murder of Rushdie, as well as the protests against Greenberg Traurig in Berlin, Atlanta, California, London and other locations.

TWENTY DEMONSTRATORS protested against the law firm's branch in Berlin last week. Kazem Moussavi, the lead organizer of the Berlin protest against Greenberg Traurig and Mahallati, said that "the courting of officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran responsible for human rights crimes must finally stop. Mohammed Mahallati is the face of an antisemitic and Islamist regime, who has no place at an educational institution of a democratic country.”

”We call on the president of the university and the entire Oberlin College board to finally meet with the relatives of the victims of the wave of executions that Mr. Mahallati covered up," said Moussavi, who is an AAIRIA member. "In addition, the university must have the crimes independently investigated and kick Mr. Mahallati out of Oberlin College."

Activists from the Berlin-based organization Stop the Bomb participated in the demonstration. Stop the Bomb, together with AAIRIA, wrote: “We call on Oberlin Board member Mr. Chuck Birenbaum to meet with relatives of Mr. Mahallati's victims. Chuck Birenbaum's law firm, Greenberg Traurig, is legally representing Mr. Mahallati against allegations of a cover-up of the 1988 crimes, which is why protests have been held in front of various international branches of the Greenberg Traurig law firm, in the US, London and Berlin. The Greenberg Traurig law firm in Berlin refused to personally receive a representative of the protesters and to accept a letter.”

Len Khodorkovsky, former deputy assistant secretary of state and senior advisor to the US representative for Iran, and Lawdan Bazargan, an Iranian-American human rights activist whose brother Bijan was of one of the victims of the 1988 massacre, dubbed Mahallati in a Washington Examiner opinion article “The Butcher of Oberlin” in October 2021.