Does going to Mecca make Muslims more moderate?

The search for better economic policy.
April 25 2008 7:05 AM

The Pilgrim's Progressiveness

Does going to Mecca make Muslims more moderate?

(Continued from Page 1)

But the changes from the Hajj experience transcended mere shifts in religious observance, inspiring many pilgrims with newfound feelings of tolerance. While in Mecca, Hajjis can't help but rub shoulders with Muslims of every shape and size. Sunni and Shiite, African and Pakistani, all live and pray together as a single congregation of millions. This intermixing of peoples in Mecca seems to have caused the Pakistani Hajjis to express more tolerant views of other Muslims. Just over half of the Pakistanis who didn't go on the Hajj told the survey team that they had a positive view of other Muslim countries. This figure jumped to nearly 70 percent among Hajj survey respondents.

Even more surprising, Hajjis were 25 percent less likely to believe that it was impossible for Muslims of different ethnicities or sects to live together in harmony—a finding that would seem to be of particular interest for those trying to bring peace to the streets of Baghdad. This greater sense of goodwill among peoples even extended to non-Muslims (who were obviously not represented in Mecca). Hajjis were more likely than non-Hajjis to hold the opinion that people of all religions can live in harmony. Hajjis were also less likely to feel that extreme methods—such as suicide bombings or attacks on civilians—could be justified in dealing with disagreements between Muslims and non-Muslims.

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The findings of the study suggest that the Hajj may help to improve the lot of women in Islamic countries as well. Fewer Hajjis thought that men are intellectually superior to women, and a greater fraction expressed a concern for crimes against women in Pakistan. Why should a prayer trip to Mecca raise consciousness about women's issues? Perhaps because in Mecca, men and women pray together. By contrast, women in Pakistan rarely attend religious services, and when they do, they're relegated to a separate part of the mosque from the men. Familiarity seems to breed tolerance and respect.

And what about views of the United States? Does the Hajj have pilgrims chanting "Death to America" by the time they board the plane to go back home? Despite anti-American rallies and the presence in Mecca of religious fanatics, Hajjis don't return with views of the West that are any more negative than those who stayed home. They were no more likely to believe that Jews or Westerners were involved in the Sept. 11 attacks and were no more hostile to Western values or innovations than non-Hajjis.

Pilgrims may not return from the Hajj harboring warm feelings for America, but it's heartening to find that the Hajj may help to undermine support for the violent methods that have been so devastatingly deployed against Americans in the past. And if we're to bring an end to violence in Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim world, it is imperative that Iraqis and others believe that they can peacefully settle differences among themselves. According to this study, the Hajj may help to achieve both of these objectives. Rather than worrying about the hate-mongering extremists that seem to exist on the fringes of the Hajj, perhaps the United States should consider redirecting some of its aid to Pakistan (and perhaps Iraq and Iran) to help more pilgrims make the trip.

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