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. Some, Select [Black] Lives Matter (SS[B]LM) under Diversity, Inequity, and Exclusion (DIE) of the Pro-Choice ethical religion.

  2. I just saw a group of Tweets from the government of Iran basically blaming Rushdie for getting stabbed and that raises a question: How is it that I can read a thread of the Iranian government justifying a stabbing on Twitter but I cannot read anything by Donald Trump? Would some little lefty (hint, Anonymous, Sammy, Svelaz, Natacha) care to defend allowing the Mullahs of Iran freedom to tweet but yet not allowing a president or ex-president of the US to do so?

    If I had a twitter account I would cancel it. I never call for things to be banned, as the left does with Fox etc etc, but I will not use my own money to support something I abhor. I quit buying the NY Times 30 years ago, I stopped buying the Boston Globe (my former hometown paper) 20 years ago and I will not pay for a paywall for any leftwing outlet.

    1. I just went to https://twitter.com/Iran_GOV, and what I see is a tweet saying “#Iran FM Spox rejects any link with attack on #SalmanRushdie,” and you’d have to really stretch to interpret that as “a thread of the Iranian government justifying a stabbing.”

      1. I was on Twitchy, a great site, and I red with my own eyes an entire thread of tweets from the Iranian government. But hey, you keep defending the mullahs and I’ll keep protesting them.

        Anonymous has come on here to actually defend the government of Iran for ONE TWEET that tries to absolve them of a stabbing of Salmon Rushdie after there has been a GOVERNMENT SPONSORED BOUNTY on his head for 30 years.

        This is the left of today, anything that is against the interest of the US is good be it Iran, the CCP, banning our energy as they look the other way on China’s. In the 80s they wanted Regan to unilaterally disarm is of nukes because the Soviets were funding the so-called peace movement, then they wanted to bane nuclear power, now they want to ban gas, coal and oil and still nuke power as our enemy builds coal plants every day.

        Anonymous, friend of Tehran.

        1. You don’t link to anything to back up your claim.
          You don’t quote anything to back up your claim.

          Your claim was about “tweets,” which are comments on Twitter, and you even said “If I had a twitter account I would cancel it,” but now you imply that they were on “Twitchy” (which I’d never even heard of til your mention of it) and not tweets at all. If they were on Twitchy, why would you cancel a Twitter account??

          “Anonymous has come on here to actually defend the government of Iran for ONE TWEET that tries to absolve them of a stabbing of Salmon Rushdie after there has been a GOVERNMENT SPONSORED BOUNTY on his head for 30 years.”

          BS. I was pointing out that your claim “I just saw a group of Tweets from the government of Iran basically blaming Rushdie for getting stabbed” was false. Truth and falsity matter!

          I do not defend the government of Iran. Their fatwa is horrifying, and I absolutely condemn it. I do defend being truthful, unlike you.

          “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”
          Hannah Arendt

        1. Prior to today, I’d never read any tweets from the government of Iran. You seem not to understand the Twitter ToS. Trump repeatedly violated it, and that’s why he was banned. If the government of Iran violates their ToS, then it should be banned too. But it’s about the content of the tweets, not about the person who posts them, which you apparently don’t understand.

          1. Twitchy shows TWITTER tweets and that is how I know Iran uses Twitter.
            You blithely state that Trump violated Twitter’s TOS and imply that Iran hasn’t???? Just keep defending Iran fascist. Why is it so darn hard to say that it is ridiculous for Trump to be banned and the Mullahs not? Just say it or else defend it.

        2. The government of Iran is the largest supporter of state-sponsored terrorism, ATS isn’t offended by their actions and supports America sending them loads of cash and permitting them to have a nuclear weapon which will cause other states to get them as well. In the rush to arm with nuclear weapons, we will likely see them being set off.

          People like ATS hate the America we know to such an extent that they provide support for the government of Iran but like to pretend otherwise. One doesn’t have to read their tweets to understand that they will cause America harm whenever they can.

  3. Supporting a fatwa that calls for murder seems to raise the question of where does speech become incitement.

  4. At first, I might have disagreed and thought that agreeing to the death of someone should not count as free speech. But then I took a step back and realized my motto is just as bad: The only good communist is a dead one. Then again, I am a victim of communism so I may be a bit biased.

  5. The ultimate form of cancel culture is murder.

    The fact that so many in higher education support the idea that it is acceptable to shout down a speaker or commit violence against someone or a group is reprehensible. These acts are very similar to those of the Nazi’s. That is ironic given that the radical left frequently refers to conservatives as Nazi’s and Facists.

  6. Jonathan: Excuse me if I change the subject from Oberlin to a column you wrote yesterday in USA Today. The column is titled: “Attorney General Garland’s stature shrinks as he doggedly pursues Trump”. In the column you say the AG resembles the “Incredible Shrinking Man” because of his handling of the search of Trump’s residence. You say it’s “not his character but his personality in dealing with political controversies” You say Garland has “careened from one political controversy to another without any sign that Garland is firmly in control of the department”. You complain that Garland has not appointed special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden which you claim indicates Garland has “politicized” the DOJ.

    Now the only thing you can say for sure about the Garland is what he has said many times: “Nobody is above the law”. He seems to be a pretty low-key AG not inclined to stick his nose into political controversies. The fact that he has not bowed to your demands over Hunter Biden doesn’t mean he has “politicalized” the department. It is curious you would make this claim when you said absolutely nothing when your buddy Bill Barr acted as Trump’s toady, willing to jeopardize the independence of the DOJ by intervening in the Michael Flynn and Roger Stones cases as a “political” favor to Trump. Why the double standard? The only reason the search of Mar-a-Lago has become “politicalized” is due to all the false claims made by you, Fox News and right-wing GOP members about the search of Trump’s residence. So now you have to engage in personal attacks against Garland because you have nothing else.

    Trump thought he could thumb his nose at Garland by refusing to respond to a subpoena calling for the return of top secret docs. He was caught flat-footed when Garland signed off on the search warrant. Then he apparently thought Garland would not respond to Trump’s demands the search warrant be unsealed. When Garland called his bluff Trump realized he was facing a formable opponent. That’s why Trump, in typical Mafia fashion, sent a message to Garland threatening violence form his supporters. We saw such violence when a guy died after he tried to breach an FBI office and armed protesters appeared outside the FBI office in Phoenix. If Trump was willing to use violence to overturn an election you can bet he could do the same when facing criminal charges.

    The only reason the search has become “politicalized” is due to all the false claims made by you, Fox News and Trump’s supporters in the GOP. If Garland actually indicts Trump on multiple criminal counts it won’t be because of political considerations but because he is following the evidence and the law. This may seem strange to you who supported Bill Barr–the guy who was willing to do Trump’s political bidding. It appears AG Garland is cut from different cloth. He actually believes “no one is above the law”. When a former president openly flouts the law, takes highly compartmentalized top secret docs to use for political purposes he must be held accountable.

    1. How much did the FBI pay you to write this? Merrick Garland lost his mind after not becoming a Supreme Court justice and that clearly tinges every political action he has made. And Bill Barr being Trump’s buddy? The guy who basically threw Trump to the wolves after the election? The $2.50 you make for every pro-fed post isn’t worth the obvious 1984-esque recasting of history you are propounding.

      1. best comment yet. Merrick Garland is a sniveling little β male bottom doing what his α owners, Susan Rice and Thug Barack, are telling him to do

        Merrick will never live down this down

  7. I don’t believe I could ever truly trust anyone I couldn’t sit down and discuss things with over a beer and BBQ.

  8. One might suggest that a complete list of Oberlin alumni be made public and those individuals be asked bluntly: do you support Oberlin’s refusing (delaying) payment of the grocery store judgment; and do you support the Muslim teacher’s position on the Fatwa. To those alumni who side with current Oberlin leadership, they need to understand there will be consequences for their continued support of the college. For those who are not in favor of the current leadership, some among them need to speak up, but all should discontinue financial and other support for the school……until and unless things change.

    The one ‘cure’ for the extreme leftward movement on campuses today will be for Alumni to speak up against it…..no more cash, no more support, until and unless it is reversed.
    I am not aware of any nationwide effort to get Alumni to do this.

    1. Richard Lowe,
      I have read about some Alumni declaring they are no longer donating to their former universities over different leftist positions the universities have taken.
      But nothing organized.
      Would universities actually change? Or just double down on wokeism and assume their latest indoctrinated drones will make up for the lost income stream?
      More likely just raise tuition as recent woke grads cannot find a job for underwater basket weaving degrees and continue their careers as baristas

  9. There is no problem here, we have the first Amendment and however distasteful it may appear, this person can say whatever he wants. The real problem lies with the hiring committee that gave this Islamist succor within our education industry, that is what should be investigated and solved.

  10. “Mohammad Jafar Mahallati … supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie”

    Nothing you’ve quoted supports the fatwa. Saying “any blasphemous statement against sacred figures should be condemned” does not suggest that the speaker of a “blasphemous statement against sacred figures should be” *killed*, and in the same interview, he speaks out against the murder of civilians.

  11. Today’s universities are grooming tomorrow’s totalitarian state functionaries. It really doesn’t matter what religion they are.

  12. “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.”

    That is disturbing.
    When cancel culture is not enough for the left, I could see those numbers go up.

    Meanwhile, support a small family owned grocery store.
    Actually support any small business.

    1. UpstateFarmer – My friend I would also suggest that both groups are at universities because of their class not because of merit. They will further go on with bogus degrees and become government workers where they’ll be paid for showing up. After which their classmates who excelled in merit became successful will become targets of envy and told “pay their fair share”.

      1. Margot,
        Hard to argue that.
        My wife’s company hired a DIE place holder for all that is virtue and woke. Once a month they have to sit in a Zoom session, getting lectured on all that is woke for an hour in what could be summed up in about 10 minutes.
        Fortunately, she can just put it on mute and walk away or do other things.
        Rumor has it, this position is a six figure salary.

  13. If Muhalatti worked for the Iranian regime, how was he able to get a visa to work in the US?

  14. Few academics would support fatwa (or its equivalent) ? I’m not so certain of that these days, and it is triply true for indoctrinated or under parented younger folks. Just what does one imagine cancellation culture is? To me it’s a stone’s throw away from being PRECISELY that. I have no benefit of the doubt left for our American progressives and their confused young and useless. With the kids, their parents dropped all the balls (kids do not simply cease questioning or come up with complex concepts on their own) and it isn’t my job to fix it. This has gone way too far and already for far too long. We need to shut it down *before* it metastasizes again, because as the past six or seven years have shown us – you better believe it will. It’s a laugh riot that something like covid was/is an ‘evolving’ threat. Hah!

  15. My only complaint here is that Mahalatti gets the benefit of support whereas those on the right do not. I don’t care what he writes and speaks as long he is not inciting people to riot and murder in person and leads them in that act. I don’t believe that would be defendable free speech. I am more than capable of not melting in the sunlight like a snowflake when someone says something offensive. And I am not going to shout him down while he is screaming his stupidities because I also believe in free speech. Also knowing many Muslims over nearly 50 years as friends and colleagues, I know that they have their diversity of opinion about the true meaning of Islam and how it should be practiced and “everyone does not agree”. No one knows history any more, no one can study and understand the political landscape in the past and now and how we got there in the past and now. There are rare historians who understand and there were once politicians who understood history. But no more. Journalism is a vast wasteland (to coin an ancient phrase) of knowledge and colleges, well they certainly don’t spread wisdom and knowledge at all.

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