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 nonwhite."
So does the Hajj open minds, or does it expose Muslims to radical views that unite them against the non-Islamic world? Researchers David Clingingsmith, Asim Khwaja and Michael Kremer surveyed more than 1,600 Pakistanis, about half of whom went on the Hajj in 2006. 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. Poor families save for years to attend.
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. So the government holds a lottery.
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. 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.
But the changes from the Hajj experience also inspired 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 they had a positive view of other Muslim countries. This figure jumped to nearly 70 percent among Hajj survey respondents. (MORE)
Ray Fisman is the Lambert Family Professor of Social Enterprise and research director of the Social Enterprise Program at the Columbia Business School.