Oberlin Faces New Controversy over Islamic Scholar’s Support of the Rushdie Fatwa

It appears that Oberlin has another major controversy on its hand. For the last couple years, Oberlin has been embroiled in a fight with a small family-owned grocery that it defamed over a shoplifting case involving black students. Oberlin lost $25 million in a record verdict but Oberlin President Carmen Twillie Ambar continued to refuse to apologize. In the meantime, the school seems intent on running the 137-year-old grocery into insolvency as it delays paying on the judgment. Now the school is under fire over a faculty member, Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, who supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The author of Satanic Verses is recovering from a savage knife attack. Hadi Matar, 24, is accused of carrying out the stabbing attack and has expressed support for Iran in the past. The campaign to have Mahallati fired could present some difficult free speech and academic freedom questions.

Mahallati is a professor of religion and Islamic Studies and once served as the Islamic Republic’s ambassador at the United Nations.

According to Fox News.com, Mahallati was asked in 1989 about the “right to put a bounty on someone’s head” and responded “I think all Islamic countries agree with Iran. All Islamic nations and countries agree with Iran that any blasphemous statement against sacred figures should be condemned.” He then added insult to injury:

“I think 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 belief, in the case of any blasphemous statement against sacred Islamic figures.”

It was a familiar misrepresentation of free speech values. Islamic countries have long claimed that banning speech or killing those who engage in blasphemous speech is a form of free speech.

The Iranian view of free speech shows the extreme end of the slippery slope of relativism in free speech. We have been debating this increasingly common claim that shutting down speech is free speech. At the University of California campus, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display.  When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech,”  CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech. (Bilek later cancelled herself and resigned after an inappropriate comment in a faculty meeting).

In this case, Iran issued a fatwa supporting the killing of Rushdie and offering a huge reward. Ultimately, two of his translators were knifed, one fatally.  Supporting a fatwa is an exercise of free speech. Acting on a fatwa to harm someone is a crime.

Critics, however, insist that Mahallati was a high-ranking official supporting this state action.  Nevertheless, I still believe that a professor has the right to voice unpopular and frankly shocking positions in such controversies. I have defended faculty who have made similarly disturbing comments “detonating white people,” denouncing policecalling for Republicans to suffer,  strangling police officerscelebrating the death of conservativescalling for the killing of Trump supporters, supporting the murder of conservative protesters and other outrageous statements. I also defended the free speech rights of University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis, who defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence.

A more serious allegation has surfaced over a 2018 Amnesty International report accusing Mahallati of carrying out “crimes against humanity” for covering up the massacre of at least 5,000 Iranian dissidents in 1988. That is conduct or action by Mahallati that would raise grounds over his fitness as a member of a faculty. Yet, he has denied that allegation and Oberlin said that it has investigated and rejected it.

If the school has previously investigated the matter, it should be treated as closed absent new evidence. We recently saw the reopening of an investigation at Princeton as a pretext to fire a controversial faculty member.

On what we know, it would seem that Mahallati would be protected under free speech and academic principles despite his reported anti-free speech views.

Of course, it does not take away from the grotesque position that he has taken. Ironically, his faculty page discusses how he “developed innovative courses with interdisciplinary approach to friendship and forgiveness studies and also initiated the Oberlin annual Friendship Day Festival.” His personal website further states his research is “focused on the ethics of peacemaking in Islam in the context of comparative religions.”

Nothing says ethics and peace more than a lethal fatwa targeting dissenting authors.

As for Iran, it denies any involvement in the attack but added its own sense of offense at being criticized. Instead, it again attacked Rushdie.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said “We, in the incident of the attack on Salman Rushdie in the U.S., do not consider that anyone deserves blame and accusations except him and his supporters.” He added that the West “condemning the actions of the attacker and in return glorifying the actions of the insulter to Islamic beliefs is a contradictory attitude.”

It is strikingly similar to Mahallati’s statement back in 1989. Only in the most twisted view of free speech (and logic) would there be a contradiction in condemning the attempted murder of an author while supporting the author’s right to express his views.

Few academics would support Iran’s blood-soaked interpretation of free speech. However, we need to address the creeping relativism that is sweeping across our campus. A recent poll was released by 2021 College Free Speech Rankings after questioning a huge body of 37,000 students at 159 top-ranked U.S. colleges and universities. It found that sixty-six percent of college students think shouting down a speaker to stop them from speaking is a legitimate form of free speech.  Another 23 percent believe violence can be used to cancel a speech. That is roughly one out of four supporting violence.

Faculty and editors are now actively supporting modern versions of book-burning with blacklists and bans for those with opposing political views. Others are supporting actual book burning. Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll has denounced the “weaponization” of free speech, which appears to be the use of free speech by those on the right. As millions of students are taught that free speech is a threat and that “China is right” about censorship, these figures are shaping a new society in their own intolerant images.

It is the subject of my recent publication in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. The article entitled “Harm and Hegemony: The Decline of Free Speech in the United States.

60 thoughts on “Oberlin Faces New Controversy over Islamic Scholar’s Support of the Rushdie Fatwa”

  1. As President Obama revealed the appropriateness of killing US Citizen Anwar Nasser al-Awlaki in Yemen by drone for supporting information operations directed at other Americans that resulted in attacks at Fort Hood, perhaps President Biden should add this “distinguished scholar” to his drone strike list for his role in supporting the attempted murder of a US Citizen in New York the next time this fine professor steps out of the US.

  2. With the cowardly PC atmosphere on this campus, it would take very little to shut it down. A couple of hangman’s nooses, a couple of papers posted by “The KKK,” some phone or letter threats, and something made with wires, a timer looking thing, a couple of road flares, wire and a battery all made up to look like a type of “theatrical device.” The PC pussies at the campus would blow all the capillaries in their tiny brains!

  3. When a faculty member supports a bounty by a terrorist nation, on the head of a writer who published a book critical of Islam, or when he supports the stabbing of that author, it raises safety concerns for students. This isn’t a matter of an opposing opinion being denigrated as hate speech. It’s supporting attempted murder and violence based on content.

    Would he promote violence against your kids if he didn’t agree with them? What if he found out one of them criticized Islam, in the same manner in which Christianity routinely gets criticized? Will he encourage violence, or turn his name over to a terrorist?

    Universities have already devolved into far Left madrassas, favoring identity politics and Leftist causes over hard science and critical reasoning. When does it stop?

    He does have the right to say whatever he wants, but I also have the right as a parent to vote with my wallet when it comes time to select which universities I’ll be willing to pay for.

    1. This place needs to be shut down like the rest of the PC liberal garbage dumps we call Liberal Arts Colleges today. It might have to be done by violence, but it needs to be done!

    2. Does Oberlin’s library contain a copy of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses? Would Prof. Mahallati be okay with that, or has the book been purged from the library?


    This entire realm does not comport with “original intent”; none of this madness was supposed to exist in the new nation of America.

    “Oh, what a tangled web we weave…when first we practice to deceive.”

    – Sir Walter Scott, Marmion

    “[We gave you] a [restricted-vote] republic, if you can keep it.”

    – Ben Franklin

    “The influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities. In the composition of society, the harmony of the ingredients is all-important, and whatever tends to a discordant intermixture must have an injurious tendency.”

    – Alexander Hamilton

    United States Congress, “An act to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization,” March 26, 1790

    Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That any Alien being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof…

    1. George likes to cite sections of law that have long since been obsoleted by amendment, as if the amendments never occurred, or did, but don’t carry any particular authority. The word for what George is doing is legal nostagia. The image George is shooting for is obsolete-irrelevance…a relic…a blast from the past.

    2. Islamic Supremacists ought to have the courage to admit that their faith teaches them to kill those who are not followers of their belief system. Christians are taught that all human beings are sinners, hopeless without God’s plan for salvation from eternal punishment, only by His mercy and His gift of faith do individuals become adopted children and allowed to enter His kingdom upon leaving this world. Died to old self and born again into a new life of love, truth and the Spirit. Which is better?

  5. Tappan Square, which on three sides has Oberlin College buildings [ the fourth and south side of the Square being the block with Gibson’s Bakery], has an impressive memorial to Oberlin College graduates killed in the Boxer Rebellion. Wonder when that will be defaced or removed? When Oberlin was begun in the mid-1800’s, it was an outpost for Christian teachings in the midst of Ohio farmland. These teachings and practice led Oberlin to be one of the first schools of “higher” ed in the United States to enroll blacks and women before the Civil War.
    In an effort to be “progressive” over the decades, Oberlin has perverted thoughtlessly its original mission with poison viruses such as the current president from New Yawk and the Islamist from Iran in the “religion” department. Unfortunately, one tenet of Islam not generally known to non-Muslims is the approval for Muslims to use the doctrine of deception, taqiyya, when dealing with non-Muslims, more often termed non-believers. To quote – “let not the believers take for friends or helpers unbelievers rather than believers..” The locals in and around Oberlin, a small rural community in Lorain County, Ohio, aren’t much impressed with this but naive and gullible adolescents drawn to this “exotic” location [of Division III football] to be manipulated by ambitious, publicity-seeking “adults” are the actual problem. For decades Oberlin College had a sterling reputation for its music school. Got a great small art museum, too. Now, it’s known as a place of ignorance and disharmony for
    $80,000 annually. You get what you pay for.

    1. A postscript – The most useful graduate of Oberlin College is Charles Martin Hall who developed the process of aluminum smelting as well as being one of the founders of Alcoa. Oberlin College benefitted from Hall’s largess. Hall would be appalled to learn, if it’s so, that his legacy is being used to squash Gibson’s Bakery, which has been around Hall was associated with the school as a student and trustee.

  6. I like the Prof Turley. IANAA I am not on the legal level of the savant Prof, BUT I believe the following statements’ are just as dangerous as the proverbial condemned ” Yelling fire in the theatre”. “I have defended faculty who have made similarly disturbing comments “detonating white people,” denouncing police, calling for Republicans to suffer, strangling police officers, celebrating the death of conservatives, calling for the killing of Trump supporters, supporting the murder of conservative protesters and other outrageous statements. I also defended the free speech rights of University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis, who defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence.

    1. Exactly, a fatwa is a threat to do bodily harm against another human being that disagrees with your faith. That is not FREE SPEECH. Fatwas should be illegal everywhere in the world and those that support death threats should lose their professorships. It is not protected by the First Amendment. Where is Common Sense?

  7. Jonathan: And now to directly respond to this column re the controversy at Oberlin. The stabbing of Salman Rushdie was horrific and shows what happens when religious adherents believe religious beliefs trump the rule of law. We know something about that here in the land of the free. Justice Alito thinks his conservative Catholic beliefs trump constitutional precedent. So Iran is not the only the country trying to impose religious orthodoxy on the entire country.

    All that aside, you have your own “fatwa” against the “familiar misrepresentation of free speech values” and the “creeping relativism [re free speech] that is sweeping across our campus”…”Faculty and editors all now actively supporting modern versions of book-burning with blacklists and bans”. As I have pointed out in previous comments you are very selective in what “free speech” causes you discuss. You have said nothing about ACTUAL book banning and censoring of public school teachers in FL and elsewhere in the South. Case in point: Fl’s Gov. DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” law is causing turmoil and uncertainty about what teachers can say and even what they can display in the classroom. The law even bans discussion in grades 4 and above of subjects deemed not “age appropriate”–even when students raise the issues of race, sexual identity, etc. In one FL school a school administrator took down photos of MLK and other prominent historical Black leaders the teacher had displayed on the wall. In the absence of clear guidelines form the state’s dept. of education, say what is “age appropriate”, teachers are forced into self-censorship. Then in other Southern states, like Tennessee and Texas, they have banned books on race, sexual identity, etc. from school libraries or classroom discussion.

    All this is a direct assault on “free speech” but an issue you have ignored. When you address these existential threats to free expression I might change my view you are not the “free speech absolutist” you claim to be.

    1. Justice Alito thinks his conservative Catholic beliefs trump constitutional precedent….In one FL school a school administrator took down photos of MLK and other prominent historical Black leaders the teacher had displayed on the wall.

      I’m hesitant to grant you the benefit of the doubt before I claim that you are being deceitful here. For example, I would suspect you’d be hard-pressed to name any of the “catholic” stances Alito has taken that wouldn’t apply to others including Protestants and secularists.

      And I find it funny that you would claim some kind of sacrosanct “precedent” in overturning Roe and Casey when you fail to consider the long-term, state-led, anti-abortion precedent that was set before Roe. Is it your premise that SCOTUS decisions that had no valid constitutional underpinning should be honored anyway? If that’s the case, we should reinstitute “separate but equal” precedent that was established in Plessy v. Ferguson since that precedent was established before Brown v Board of Education.

      Your recall about the removed pictures isn’t anything like you misrepresent so I’m now thinking your lie of omission was intentional. The teacher in question had 6-8 special needs kids and the pictures and classroom was repositioned to comply with state law. ““The Behavior Analyst informed Mr. James the bulletin board directly behind his teaching area needed to be dedicated to state-required curricular materials he would need to engage this specific group of students in their daily learning and development activities, as they were seated at his teaching table with him,” the district statement obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation said.

      See how weak your half-truth arguments are?

      1. Yes, Dennis is deceitful. We generally scroll past his sins of commission.

        On the other hand, you can take sour lemons from trolls and turn them into graces. I would like to think that reading comments by trolls like Dennis may or may not grant readers a Plenary Indulgence – General Conditions


        Happy Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary !

      2. Trey Panning: You do get points for at least being willing to discuss the issues. So let’s do that. As to Justice Alito and Roe, the conservative Catholic jurist, with one stroke of the pen, overturned a 50 yr. old precedent giving women the right to make their own reproductive choices. Why? Because he thinks that abortion is contrary to his conservative Catholic teachings and he can impose his views on millions of women around the country. Have you read Alito’s opinion in the Dobbs case? Probably not. But Alito had to reach back to the 17th century to justify his reasoning. And who does Alito cite and rely upon in his opinion? The 17th century English jurist Sir Matthew Hale who believed women were contractually obligated to submit to their husbands. Hale didn’t believe a married woman could legally be raped by her husband. So in the 21st century Alito is comfortable in putting women under the laws and customs of the 17th century. Is that what you also subscribe to?

        Now, as to the case of the FL teacher who resigned in protest over school district policies I can’t think of a better case to illustrate my point about how free expression is under attack. Special ed teacher Michael James, who teaches in a predominantly Black school district, decided to display the photos of MLK, Colin Powell, Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver in his classroom. He wanted his students to see the importance of Black historical figures that looked like them. The person who took down those photos also took down the the photo of Barack Obama, the first Black president of the US. In taking down the photo of Obama James was told: “the kids are too young for that”. The school district tried to justify the action by saying the bulletin board was “needed to be dedicated to state-required curricular materials”. Do you really think that was the real reason or just a subterfuge? I think it was the latter–to keep students from identifying with historically important Black figures in American history. That’s racism and it is being pushed by Gov. DeSantis.

        Yes, there ARE truths and half truths. The real TRUTH is that in FL, and elsewhere, free expression is being stifled–to prevent school kids from learning about the real history of this country. That’s the TRUTH you apparently don’t want to acknowledge.

  8. In principle, free speech absolutism is an honorable position to take. However in practice, it’s an absolute failure. It’s suicidal. Under the color of free speech, academics have the freedom to teach ideologies antithetical to our own system of government and western values. The result should surprise no one. We now have generations of our own citizens that loathe their own country. Not only are they not willing to fight for it, they are actively fighting against it. And they are exploiting the right of free speech to destroy the entire system.

    Perhaps free speech absolutism should mean you absolutely shall not express any position that if acted upon would infringe our natural right to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness.

  9. With the advent of “anyone can publish” some 20 years ago, we’re seeing a phenomena grow where the voices of the intolerant, the strident activist, the militant infowarrior, and amoral profiteering misanthrope rise to drown out the voices of the rational, constructive, modest, respectful, inquisitive and thoughtful.

    Free speech, to idealistic legal theoreticians like JT, rather than defending the right of those observing civility rules to control the conversation, has taken up the cause of the marauding infowarrior plotting to commandeer the infosphere.

    I consider it an extremist interpretation of freedom of speech to allow character assassination (deceitful defamation) and modern forms of digital-intimidation (doxxing, incitement to violence, anonymous threats). Radical infowarriors who observe no restraints of civility have weakened the social fabric and decimated the problem-solving muscle of a once great America.

    So, I ask JT, where do you draw the line between disagreeable speech and personal threats aimed at silencing one’s perceived foes? We need sharp-thinking lawyer-academics to define some red-lines for the digital era.
    For instance, would you be willing to ban doxxing? How would it be defined? How would it be deterred and enforced? This is what we need, JT.

    1. Would not the the definition of “inflammatory speech, “inciting or producing imminent lawless action” under Brandenburg be applicable. The problem being showing proof that it is the actual cause of any such action produced.

      1. That’s definitely thinking in the right direction. But, better would be to reestablish norms of discourse, and use social opprobrium. Everyone has to be involved upholding norms. If we cannot have productive discourse in the US, the complex problems will go unsolved. We risk being overtaken by more authoritarian systems that can get things decided and be moving forward, rather than exhausting our energies in pointless partisan feuding.

Comments are closed.