Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What traveling to Mecca does to Muslims

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 non-white."

So does the Hajj open minds, or does it expose Muslims to radical views that unite them against the non-Islamic world?
That is an important question asked in this Slate article. The Hajj is a Pillar of Islam, up there with daily prayer, giving to the poor and fasting during Ramadan. It is a pilgrimage to Mecca that every able-bodied Muslim is expected to participate in, and therefore its influences are profound. Three researchers recently set out to answer that question. In a yet published study, they found that the Hajj made its pilgrims more moderate on a range of issues, religious and nonreligious, "suggesting that the Hajj may be helpful in curbing the spread of extremism in the Islamic world."

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