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 percent of Americans believe Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions, up from 36 percent in 2005. Close to a third of respondents use negative words like fanatic, radical and terror to describe their impressions of Islam.
Does increased religious orthodoxy promote violence and intolerance? Our research on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca suggests this association is wrong. The hajj is one of the most important institutions in Islam and a singular experience for many Muslims.
Our recent study of Pakistani pilgrims shows that while performing the hajj leads to greater religious orthodoxy, it also increases pilgrims' desire for peace and tolerance toward others (to read the study, go to http://ssrn.com/abstract=1124213). And this greater tolerance is not just toward fellow Muslims - it also extends to non-Muslims.
These findings echo the experience of Malcolm X, who drastically 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 phenomenon, with over 2 million Muslims from all over the world gathering for several days in intense prayer and rituals. Pilgrims interact with fellow Muslims of different races and ethnicities in a religious context. At the hajj, men and women often pray alongside one another, an entirely new experience for many pilgrims.
Our study isolates 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 treatment group and compare their outcomes to a statistically similar control group. While social scientists rarely have the opportunity to use this method, we are able to do so by taking advantage of a randomized lottery for allocating hajj visas in Pakistan. We compare the attitudes of 800 successful lottery applicants, the "treatment" group, to an equal number of unsuccessful ones. The results are incredibly revealing.