By Steve Kelman

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The Lectern: Pilgrimage season in Mecca

As probably few Americans are aware, during these days the annual pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca -- called in Arabic the Hajj -- is occurring. Observant Muslims try to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during their lives. It's unfortunate that not many of us even know that a major religious observance by a major world religion is currently taking place.

My colleague Asim Khwaja recently completed a fascinating study of the impact of doing the pilgrimage on the beliefs of Muslims. He was trying to determine whether pilgrims became more fanatical or intolerant as a result of participation in the pilgrimage -- or perhaps more tolerant instead.

To investigate this question, he used an interesting research methodology that social scientists often try to use.

In Pakistan (his home country), there is a lottery to get visas to participate in the pilgrimage. Of those applying for visas, only a fraction of people receive them, with a lottery determining the "winners." So Khwaja compared the views of those who had applied for visas and lost the lottery, with applicants who won and got to go to Mecca. So, in social science jargon, he controlled for any special features of people that would tend to make them want to go on the pilgrimage in the first place. He then sampled the views of a sample of these pilgrims after they returned from Mecca, and of a number of lottery losers.

The findings were fascinating. Compared with lottery losers, the people who actually participated in the Hajj displayed a greater belief in equality and harmony among ethnic groups, including non-Muslims. Additionally, participants had more favorable attitudes toward women, including greater acceptance of female education and employment. In other words, participation in the Hajj seems to have fostered more enlightened attitudes.

P.S. On another topic (follow-up to last week's post on economizing at Harvard): When I took a shower at the Harvard gym Saturday afternoon, the water was very hot again, in a way it hadn't been for the previous two weeks. I have no idea whether conceivably my post on this topic prompted an embarrassed return to hot water!

 

Posted by Steve Kelman on Dec 09, 2008 at 12:10 PM


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