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Proof that the Hajj makes pilgrims more religious – and more tolerant

Published on: November 2008​
Genre: Comparative Middle East Politics​ Category: Op eds​

For many people in the West, Islam is increasingly associated with violence and terrorism. According to a 2007 survey conducted by the PEW Forum, 45 per cent of Americans believe Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions, up from 36 per cent in 2005. Close to a third of respondents used negative words like “fanatic”, “radical” and “terror” to describe their impressions of Islam.

So, does increased religious orthodoxy promote violence and intolerance? A study we carried out of Pakistani pilgrims on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca suggests this association is wrong. In fact, our study showed that while the hajj leads to greater religious orthodoxy, it also increases pilgrims’ desire for peace and tolerance toward others, even non-Muslims.

These findings echo the experience of Malcolm X, who radically altered his views on race after performing the hajj. In a letter from the hajj, he wrote: "We were all participating in the same ritual, displaying 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… what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held."

The hajj is an inherently communal and international event, with more than 2 million Muslims from all over the world gathering for several days of prayer and rituals. Pilgrims interact with fellow Muslims of different races. At the hajj, men and women often pray alongside one another, an entirely new experience for many pilgrims.

Our study looked at the impact of performing the hajj using a method common in medicine. When doctors want to test a new drug, they give it to a randomly selected="true" treatment group and compare their outcomes to a statistically similar control group. While social scientists rarely have the opportunity to use this method, we were able to do so by taking advantage of a randomised lottery for allocating hajj visas in Pakistan. So we compared the attitudes of 800 successful lottery applicants – the “treatment” group – to an equal number of unsuccessful ones. The results were incredibly revealing.

Pilgrims are more observant of orthodox religious practice even five to eight months after returning from the hajj. They are 16 per cent more likely to pray and 26 per cent more likely to do so regularly in the mosque.

What may be surprising to some is that the hajj makes pilgrims more tolerant of both fellow Muslims and non-Muslims. The experience of diversity on the hajj really does seem to matter. Hajjis have more positive views about people from other Muslim countries and are more likely to believe that different Pakistani ethnic and Islamic sectarian groups are equal and that they can live in harmony.

Despite non-Muslims not being part of the hajj experience, these views also extend to adherents of other religions. Pilgrims are 22 per cent more likely to declare that people of other religions are equal, and 11 per cent more likely to state that different religions can live in harmony.

In the same manner, hajjis have more positive views on women’s abilities, greater concern for their quality of life, and are more likely to favour educating girls and having women participate in the workforce. They are also more sensitive to crimes against women.

Hajjis are also less likely to support the use of violence and show no evidence of any increased hostility toward the West. They are more than twice as likely to declare that the goals of Osama bin Laden are incorrect, and more likely to declare that it is wrong to physically punish someone if they dishonour the family.

While these results are specifically about the hajj, they have broader implications. The impact of an event like the hajj demonstrates that even deep-rooted attitudes such as religious beliefs and views about other social groups can be changed. While all religions may have radical seminaries or extremist groups that promote hostility toward outsiders, our study shows this is not an inherent attribute of orthodoxy.

The promotion of tolerance doesn’t therefore need to be defined in immediate opposition to religious orthodoxy. There may be ways, as demonstrated in the hajj, to leverage religious beliefs to foster compromise and mutual respect.

There is also a broader lesson about exposure to a diversity of peoples. Although lacking a common language, mixing with others across national, sect and gender lines can help promote tolerance – both towards fellow participants but more significantly, to those who are not part of the experience.

David Clingingsmith is an assistant professor of economics, Case Western Reserve University. Asim Ijaz Khwaja is an associate professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and research fellow at the Dubai School of Government. Michael Kremer is a professor of developing societies in the Department of Economics at Harvard University. They are the authors of Estimating the Impact of the Hajj: Religion and Tolerance in Islam’s Global Gathering. An edited version of this article originally appeared in The International Herald Tribune.

This article was originally printed in The National. It can be accessed here.

DSG Working Paper 08-04, "Estimating the Impact of the Hajj: Religion and Tolerance in Islam’s Global Gathering"

DSG Policy Brief 7, “The Impact of the Hajj

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