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Posted 9.26.08

Each year millions of Muslims travel to the holy city of Mecca to complete the Hajj pilgrimage. Men and women from more than 100 countries participate together in the five-day ritual. Assistant Professor David Clingingsmith and colleagues at Harvard University recently studied the impact of this journey on the beliefs of pilgrims. 

Pilgrim accounts of the Hajj experience, such as that given by Malcolm X in his Autobiography, suggest the Hajj generates feelings of positive pan-Islamic identity. Others have expressed the fear that the Hajj may serve as a conduit for the spread of radical beliefs. More generally, social psychologists suggest that the effect of a group interaction on beliefs about group members and outsiders depends on the type of interaction.

Clingingsmith and team surveyed over 1,600 Muslims from Pakistan who participated in a random lottery system used by the Pakistani government to allocate Hajj visas.  Half of the group was awarded visas and completed the Hajj in 2006. The random selection enabled the researchers to precisely measure the impact of the pilgrimage.

Strikingly, Clingingsmith and his collaborators found that the Hajj made pilgrims more tolerant of other nationalities, have greater belief in equality and harmony among ethnic groups and Islamic sects, and have more favorable attitudes toward women, including greater acceptance of female education and employment. They found suggestive evidence that the exposure to difference across national and gender lines is a likely cause of the change in beliefs.

Clingingsmith’s work was recently featured in Slate Magazine and the International Herald Tribune.  His published research is forthcoming in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

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