By Kyla Van Buren
Jafar Mahallati, Presidential Scholar of Islam, former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, and a professor in Oberlin’s religion department, is a true academic and advocate of friendship and peace. When I entered his office to chat about his experiences, he instantly offered me a seat at the round table in the center of the room along with a cup of Persian tea.
Mahallati grew up in Shiraz, a city in the south of Iran. He attended the University of Tehran and earned his bachelors degree in Economics. He then moved from Iran to the United States — first to Dallas, Texas and then to the University of Kansas, where he studied civil engineering and earned his second bachelor’s degree. After completing his Masters of Science in political economy, he moved back to Iran to be the chairman of the Economic Department of Kerman University. With a heightened interest in International Relations, Mahallati started working for the Iranian Foreign Ministry. In 1987 he became the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations. Between 1987 and 1989, his main goal was to put an end to the Iran-Iraq war, which had already been going on for seven years.
Both foreign and domestic complexities influenced the war, Mahallati explained. There was a divide within Iran about how the war should be dealt with. Some believed that Saddam Hussein should be punished for his invasion of Iran at any costs, while others believed that the war should be dealt with more pragmatically and that Iran should end the war and preserve its resources and the lives of its people. Certain people couldn’t tolerate the idea of diplomacy or peace between Iran and Iraq. “Once I was working on a resolution to end the war and a radical figure, the Minister of State in Iran, criticized it as ‘a flirtation with the idea of peace,’” said Mahallati .
For Mahallati, participating in an organized discussion on a global issue involving the U.S., Soviet Union, and Arab nations, was an amazing diplomatic experience. “Before working in the United Nations I thought that big institutions could not be changed by individuals. Later on I learned that every individual counts. Although we were dealing with a large organization with rules and regulations, I learned the importance of establishing bilateral relationships between people representing different nations,” he said.
Before Mahallati came to the United Nations, Iran had chosen to boycott the Security Council for six years and reject all of its resolutions. As a newcomer, it took him awhile to form good relationships, but he began seeing all the members of the Security Council and talking to ambassadors from different countries one by one. “The first thing that I decided to do was establish a relationship with the Secretary General and see how he could play a role between Iran and the Security Council,” Mahallati explained. The Secretary General understood the challenges and limitations that Mahallati faced within Iran, dealing with different political factions, and he understood the Secretary General’s limitations within the Security Council. But this relationship caused some Iraqi people to to feel jealous and attack the Secretary General, saying that he was becoming biased and that he wasn’t following the rules of the Security Council, which had seemed to favor Iran.
At one time, the security council was very close to passing a resolution to adopt an economic sanction on Iran because they felt that Iran was not coming forward to support peace. When Mahallati did not get a satisfying statement from his government and was asked about Iran’s position, he said, “Iran is for peace.” He wrote and circulated an unsigned statement confirming this point to the Security Council. Even though he was attacked for his action, Mahallati was happy that he took this personal risk because it stopped a sanction from being made against his country. Mahallati helped to draft a resolution to end the war, which was finally accepted by the United Nations.
He described some sad moments in his work when some of his fellow countrymen did not support his actions and acted hostile towards him. After going beyond his mandate as ambassador to push for peace, his ties with the Iranian Foreign Ministry were finally severed. “That was a complicated time, but later on I learned that it was good for me to get out [of Iran] and pursue a new path,” he said.
Mahallati left Iran to teach International Relations at Columbia University. For about ten years after that, he taught classes related to his involvement in politics at Yale, Georgetown, and Princeton. In 2000, he decided to complete his PhD in Islamic Studies at McGill University. Mahallati wrote his thesis on the ethics of war and came to Oberlin in 2006 to give a lecture about his work. He was invited to be a visiting professor and then to be a tenure-track professor in Oberlin’s religion department. Mahallati has gained both practical and theoretical experience in a wide range of fields, which has allowed him to provide his students with an interesting and comprehensive perspective on the topics that he teaches. His life in Iran, his experience moving to the United States, his studies, and his work in the Iranian Foreign Ministry and in the United Nations, give him anecdotes to tell that no student could ever get from a textbook.
After working as a diplomat, Mahallati said that he appreciates his switch into academia and a chance to put his thoughts and experiences into a theoretical context. He described how he explores subjects in the religion department with his students and constantly discusses how theoretical knowledge can be applied to the real world. Last year, Mahallati co-taught a course on forgiveness in Christian and Islamic tradition. He was inspired by the involvement of his students and the dialogues they had about theories on forgiveness and how they can relate to both personal relationships and to politics and relationships on a larger scale (such as ones between different communities and countries). Mahallati enjoys being a professor in a liberal arts school environment, where students are “invited to be freethinkers and not to merely stand within their traditional frameworks.” He expressed that at Oberlin he “feels pleasantly at home and like he can be as innovative as possible, without being totally disconnected from tradition.”
Once he established himself on campus, Mahallati changed his focus from thinking about the ethics of war to thinking about the ethics of friendship. Aristotle wrote about friendship, but since then, there hasn’t been much theoretical development on the subject. For the past few years, Mahallati has been thinking about friendship and about how views on it in various traditions, religions, and cultures compare. He has been thinking about the modern application of friendship in the world today and about its necessity. He decided that friendship is a key to happiness and that since humans are ritualistic animals, a national or international day should be created to celebrate friendship and put the theory of it into practice.
Mahallati worked with a student group called “Oberlin Friendship Circle” to create an annual Friendship Day, which will be held tomorrow, on Tuesday, April 10. This year will be Oberlin’s third Friendship Day and the festival will include music, art, and dance performances, a student contest, activity tables, and a lunch. In the evening, at 8pm, Gustav Neibuhr, a religion and media studies professor from Syracuse University who has been a reporter for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, will be speaking in Finney Chapel. Along with the Friendship Day celebrations, Mahallati has worked to create a friendship lecture series, which has already had ten installments. Photos from last year’s Friendship Day at Oberlin, some videos of past lectures, and more information about Oberlin Friendship Circle can be found on the “Friendship Initiative” page of Oberlin’s website.
Mahallati encourages friendship as a worldview rather than just a sentimental value. He pointed out that most international dialogues about peace focus on the idea of tolerance and suggested that we try and find a new positive paradigm. “We need to learn to appreciate other people instead of just learning how to tolerate them,” he explained. Promoting friendship promotes the creation of a community, which is made up of people from all religions and cultures.
Mahallati wants to make Oberlin the hub of friendship and to have the actions of the college influence the rest of the world. After Friendship Day was established on campus, Oberlin City Council passed a resolution, bringing the new tradition to the whole town. Friendship Day was also then established in Boulder, Colorado. Mahallati believes that we can spread the tradition of celebrating friendship and shift our dialogues away from the political and economic, towards things such as the arts and philosophy. Doing this will create a stronger sense of respect and understanding between people from all different backgrounds and truly lead to peace. As Aristotle once wrote, “When people are friends, they have no need of justice, but when they are just, they need friendship in addition.”