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 In a recent, as yet unpublished study, they report that those who went to Mecca came back with more moderate views on a range of issues, both religious and nonreligious, suggesting that the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.

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.

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.

Ray Fisman is a professor of economics at the Columbia Business School and co-author of The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office. Follow him on Twitter.

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