Remembering Riaz Hassan 1937–2022

by Iván Szelényi (Yale University)

Riaz Hassan passed away in Melbourne on June 8, 2022 after a long illness. His is a great loss to the Australian social sciences and to the social sciences in general. Riaz was a great scholar, a wonderful colleague, a good friend and an excellent teacher. He was the mentor of a whole generation of social scientists. His death is an especially great loss to me personally. He helped me build the Sociology Department at Flinders University and eventually followed me to become chair of the department at Flinders. When I left for the United States, he joined me at UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) for seven years, 1994-2001, at Yale University, 2003-2005, and at NYUAD (New York University Abu Dhabi) in 2011.

Riaz was born on 14 August 1937 in Gurdaspur, Punjab in India to Muslim parents. While the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims was not without conflict, the idea of a separate Muslim state was not considered until the early 20th century. In 1947, India was split into two countries, one Islamic, Pakistan and Bangladesh (this artificial “Islamic” country broke soon up) and the rest of India. While some two thirds of Muslims lived in Pakistan and Bangladesh, there were many non-Muslims in the new “Islamic states” and many Muslims in the non-Islamic India. The unfortunate breakdown of India into states defined by religion led to a violent “population exchange.” Muslims who remained in India were under pressure to move to Pakistan and non-Muslims were being forced out of Pakistan. As a young boy, Riaz was forced to flee to Faisalabad in Pakistan, the third largest city in Punjab after Karachi and Lahore. He became a “Pakistani”, not by choice but because of the subdivision of India by religion. The trauma of this was so deep that Riaz hardly ever spoke about it to his family or to me. This influenced his character and identity for life.

Riaz grew up in Pakistan, where he received his basic education. While has was “Pakistani” in nationality, he retained a life-long interest in India as his country of birth. Riaz was destined to be “transnational”. He left Pakistan for the United States to pursue graduate education at Ohio State University (1963-68). After graduation he became Assistant Professor of Sociology at Wright State University, Ohio until he was appointed as an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.

In Singapore he met his wife, Selva – a dentist – who was of Chinese origins (her father was a well to do doctor from Sri Lanka). Riaz began to do fascinating work on public housing in Singapore (Families in Flats, 1977, Singapore University Press). In this book, Riaz outlined that what had appeared to be an impressive public housing project on the surface, had more to do with control on immigrants than it did with social justice.

In 1976, I became foundation professor of Sociology at Flinders University. I started to hire. Riaz applied and I was impressed by his application. He joined the Sociology Department in April 1977. Riaz soon made valuable contributions – he was the only one of us with quantitative methods expertise and the responsibility fell on him to teach this single handedly.

In Adelaide we became excellent friends, we met often. Selva and my wife Kati (also a dentist) liked each other. Riaz brought two young children, Haroon and Tirana who were close to the ages of my own children (they also became good friends). Moving to Australia was not without challenge. I recall that he wondered what being transnationals would mean for his children’s identity: Are they Pakistanis or are they Chinese? Or Singaporeans, or even Australians? None of these identities made much sense. He decided he would tell them they are Muslims, a good decision for a sociology professor who was not much of a practicing Muslim himself.

With Riaz and Kati in Adelaide around 1978

Riaz was instrumental in working with me to strengthen the Flinders Sociology Department. Riaz got along well with the administration, while I had some problems with some of them.

When I arrived at Flinders 1976, I found a left-leaning department. In Australia, this was the belated 1960’s. Students had exceptional power, they were not supposed to be “lectured” at and a great deal of teaching was done in “groups”. Occasionally even grading was done by students themselves. Students also had voting rights that gave them a voice concerning faculty appointments or the assignment of teaching curriculum – a system the conservative university administration did not like at all. In part, the university had recruited me since I clashed with the communist government in Hungary and had been forced to leave the country. Bob Connell (now Raewyn Connell), who started sociology at Flinders, was seen as an extreme leftist and the administration wanted his opposite. I soon disappointed them, and along with Riaz became good friends with Bob (Raewyn).

At Flinders, I had a difficult choice to make: will I side with my students or with the administration? While I liked the idea of “consulting students”, I thought that student power was  excessive. However, I decided to side with my students, even if the administration was to be disappointed. Riaz was of great help in this respect. I supported his appointment and students accepted him (since they trusted me), nevertheless Riaz was a little more conservative than I was and got along with administration on better terms. In this way, we could play the “good cop”, “bad cop” division of labor. I stuck up for the students and Riaz made peace with the administration. We played this dual role skillfully.

Riaz was also a great researcher. He was already interested in the sociology of suicide before coming to Flinders and had previously published an excellent book: A Way of Dying (1983, Oxford University Press). In a multi-ethnic society like Singapore, Riaz found that the suicide rate varied a great deal among ethnic groups. While the overall suicide rate was low in Singapore during the early 1970s, it was 11.2 percent for Chinese and was closely followed by Indians (10.8 percent) whereas it was astonishingly low for Malays (1.4 percent). While the book was mainly framed in terms of ethnicity, Riaz was attentive to the correlating religious differences. Where Chinese were mostly Buddhists, Indians Hindus, the Malays were overwhelmingly Muslims. Riaz’s findings were supported by Durkheim’s theory of suicide, that is, that suicide can be interpreted both socially and culturally.

Next, he turned his attention to suicide in Australia (Suicide Explained, 1995, Melbourne University Press). He collected data from over a century. The first important finding was how low and steady the suicide rate was in Australia. In 1986 there were 11.6 suicides per 100,000 in 1985 11.0. This challenged the received wisdom that the suicide rate will vary according to economic-social constitutions. In 2006 he was made Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of this research contribution.

In 1980, I left Australia for the US, but my collaboration and friendship with Riaz continued. He invited me back to Flinders University several times and I organized a visiting professorship for him at UCLA. UCLA’s center for Middle Eastern Studies had funding to offer a visiting professorship to someone who would teach courses on Islam. Why not Riaz Hassan? While the UCLA opportunity was tempting, Riaz hesitated. Although he had an intense interest in Islam, he had not taught a course on the subject or engaged in any significant research. He took up the visiting professorship at UCLA between 1994 and 2001. Not only did he teach admirable courses on the subject, but he also carried out outstanding research culminating in some wonderful new publications.

Riaz received major funding from the Australian Research Council to investigate religiosity in four Islamic countries: Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and Kazakhstan. It appeared to be a very challenging task, but Riaz carried this out successfully with his unusual diplomatic skills. He reported the findings in the book Faithlines, (2002, Oxford University Press)and demonstrated with empirical details how diverse Islam can be in terms of attitudes towards gender.

I left UCLA for Yale in 1999, and there too, I was fortunate to offer a position to Riaz, who became a visiting professor between 2003 and 2006. His next project addressed a complex and sensitive subject of ‘Islamic terrorism”. He was interested in the people who become suicide bombers and why they kill themselves in what appears to be an irrational an unethical act. To answer these questions, Riaz tackled the problem directly by interviewing potential suicide bombers themselves. The project drew the attention of authorities. Though he had Australian federal funding to carry out this research, federal agencies were suspicious of his activities, questioned his intentions and prevented him from completing his interviews. Fortunately, he had already compiled enough data to publish Life as a weapon (2010, Routledge). Life as a weapon challenged many of our prejudices. First of all, that “suicide bombing” is far from “irrational” and second, that using “life as a weapon” for political purposes is not uniquely “Islamic” – from the Antiquity to Christianity there are many examples people who have sacrificed their own life for religious-political aims.

Riaz loved his time in Los Angeles. He once told me he never felt more comfortable in any other city. In LA he felt like he as back home in Karachi or Lahore. After all, LA is one of the most diverse cities in the world. I should add one personal anecdote from the time both Riaz and I were based in LA. At one time, his daughter Tirana came with him to LA for some time. She was young and very beautiful. No wonder, my son, Balazs a few years her senior was more than interested. I was excited, our friendship might turn into a family! However, it was not to be at this time, Tirana was not ready for such a relationship: parents have dreams, children decide.

In 2010, I was offered the position of “Foundation Dean of Social Sciences” at NYUAD. It was a crazy idea to leave a job at Yale with a named professorship for a non-existent college in Abu Dhabi. I interviewed for the position at NYU New York in Sociology. This was the strangest interview I had ever had. The panel seemed to be supportive of me taking up a position in New York, but in Abu Dhabi? You are out of your mind? Richard Sennett was particularly articulate: Do you know how they treat workers in the UAE? he asked. I did not. After I looked into this, I called Richard back. You know what? I will take this job and I will research the situation of guest workers in the UAE.

I did not quite know how difficult this will be. How could I do research in a secretive police state on an oppressed minority when I do not even speak any of the languages of various guest workers? Again, I needed Riaz Hassan. I offered him the great title of “Global Professor of Public Policy and Social Research” (with solid compensation) and he came for the full year. We had one more wonderful year together. It became clear instantly we should do a study on Pakistani guest workers, for Riaz knows the culture and the language. The first steps were promising. Riaz was successful starting conversations with Pakistani guest workers but there were difficulties finding a suitable location to meet. It was not possible for us to enter the labor camp or for the workers to meet us on campus at NYUAB.

We did not give up on the project. If we could not do fieldwork in Abu Dhabi, why don’t we go to Pakistan? Riaz had good contacts in Pakistan. Rafiq and Razia Jaffer from the Institute of Social Sciences at Lahore, two wonderful people, helped us arrange individual and groups interviews with Pakistani migrant workers. We visited Lahore a number of times with Riaz, participating in every stage of the development of the project. We also enjoyed the hospitality of Rafiq and Razia and loved the beautiful city of Lahore.

The fieldwork lasted from 2012 to 2013. We interviewed 250 prospective and 260 returned migrants. Our book Building Nations with Non-nationals was completed in 2017 and appeared in print in 2019 with Corvina. This was to be Riaz’s last book. Our joint book is far from his best, but I believe we did the best possible work under very difficult circumstances and left a rich record of empirical data on guest workers in the UAE.

I remained in touch with Riaz. I even exchanged emails with him after his stroke in July 2021 and was saddened to learn that he had to move into hospital and be separated from Selva, who moved into an apartment next to the hospital so she could visit him daily. Before he died, he was allowed to return home for awhile, before bought back again to the hospital to die. These must have been his last happy days. While he might not have spent as much time in a mosque as religious Muslims might, he was sufficiently Muslim, so he was buried according to Islamic custom in Melbourne. Since I am not a believer, I am afraid we will have no chance to meet again. Goodbye my dear friend, rest in peace and enjoy all the pleasure heaven can offer for good people, like yourself. I will miss you.

Ivan Szelenyi is William Graham Sumner Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Political Science at Yale University

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