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?

Muslim pilgrims perform the circumambulate of the Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Click image to expand.
Muslim pilgrims in the holy city of Mecca

Last December, more than 2 million Muslims from around the world converged on Saudi Arabia to participate in the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the holy site of Mecca. The Hajjis spent a month performing religious rituals, mingling with Muslims from all walks of life, and, in some cases, taking part in communal chants of "Death to America" led by Islamic extremists. This was understandably unnerving to the 10,000 or so Americans who made the pilgrimage, not to mention those who didn't. Such behavior raised concerns that the Hajj is a breeding ground for anti-Western sentiment— or worse.

Then again, the spirit of friendship and community that typically prevails during the Hajj has also been known to promote tolerance and understanding across peoples. Malcolm X famously softened his views on black-white relations during his pilgrimage to Mecca, where he witnessed a "spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white."

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So does the Hajj open minds, or does it expose Muslims to radical views that unite them against the non-Islamic world? To find out, researchers David Clingingsmith, Asim Khwaja, and Michael Kremer surveyed more than 1,600 Pakistanis, about half of whom went on the Hajj in 2006. In a recent, as yet unpublished study, they report that those who went to Mecca came back with more moderate views on a range of issues, both religious and nonreligious, suggesting that the Hajj may be helpful in curbing the spread of extremism in the Islamic world.

All Muslims are expected to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives, though many have to overcome significant obstacles to do so. The Hajj is a huge expense for a typical Pakistani. The cost of making the trip starts at $2,500, nearly three times Pakistan's average income. Poor families save for years in order to attend. And what does $2,500 buy you? A once-in-a-lifetime religious experience, but one that involves a month of sleeping on a hard mattress in an overcrowded hostel and travel that often requires trekking dozens of miles through the desert to visit various pilgrimage sites.

Despite these hardships, there are many more Pakistanis who wish to go to Mecca each year than there are Saudi visas. In 2006, nearly 140,000 applicants vied for 80,000 visas through the Pakistan government's Hajj program. In order to decide who gets to go, the government holds a lottery. As a result, among the visa applicants, there's a group of people randomly selected to participate in the Hajj and a comparison group of would-be pilgrims who applied but didn't get to go. The two groups look very similar—the only systematic difference is that applicants in one group won the lottery and those in the other group didn't. If the Hajjis come back from Mecca more tolerant than those who didn't get to go, therefore, we know it's the result of the Hajj, not something else.

Six months after the Hajjis of '06 returned home to Pakistan, Clingingsmith, Khwaja, and Kremer had a survey team track down 1,600 Hajj applicants, half of whom had been selected to go to Mecca and half who hadn't. The Hajjis were asked questions on topics ranging from religious practices (frequency of prayer and mosque attendance, for example) to women's issues. Perhaps not surprisingly, the study found that after a monthlong immersion in communal prayer, the pilgrims were 15 percent more likely to report following mainstream Muslim practices, such as praying five times a day and reciting the Quran. This came at the expense of local Pakistani religious traditions—Hajjis were 10 percent less likely to follow local rituals like using amulets or visiting the tombs of local saints.

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