In David Lodge’s great novel Changing Places, Euphoric State University professor Morris Zapp declared that “travel narrows.” He was a world-renowned Jane Austen scholar, he said, precisely because he had never been to England: his lack of interest in the real England let him focus more sharply on the novels, and made him a better critic.

This attitude may hold true for literature (or not), but Slate reports on an interesting recent study (available here) suggesting that Muslims who make the pilgrimage 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.”

The study looks at a group of 1,600 Pakistanis who applied for visas to go on the Hajj. As Slate explains, Pakistani visa policy creates a group that’s a social scientist’s dream:

In 2006, nearly 140,000 applicants vied for 80,000 visas through the Pakistan government’s Hajj program. In order to decide who gets to go, the government holds a lottery. As a result, among the visa applicants, there’s a group of people randomly selected to participate in the Hajj and a comparison group of would-be pilgrims who applied but didn’t get to go. The two groups look very similar—the only systematic difference is that applicants in one group won the lottery and those in the other group didn’t. If the Hajjis come back from Mecca more tolerant than those who didn’t get to go, therefore, we know it’s the result of the Hajj, not something else.

So what did the researchers find? As they report,

[P]articipation in the Hajj increases observance of global Islamic practices such as prayer and fasting while decreasing participation in localized practices and beliefs such as the use of amulets and dowry. It increases belief in equality and harmony among ethnic groups and Islamic sects and leads to more favorable attitudes toward women, including greater acceptance of female education and employment. Increased unity within the Islamic world is not accompanied by antipathy toward non-Muslims. Instead, Hajjis show increased belief in peace, and in equality and harmony among adherents of different religions. The evidence suggests that these changes are more a result of exposure to and interaction with Hajjis from around the world, rather than religious instruction or a changed social role of pilgrims upon return….

Our results tend to support the idea that the Hajj helps to integrate the Muslim world, leading to a strengthening of global Islamic beliefs, a weakened attachment to localized religious customs, and a sense of unity and equality with others who are ordinarily separated in everyday life by sect, ethnicity, nationality, or gender, but who are brought together during the Hajj. While the Hajj may help forge a common Islamic identity, there is no evidence that this is defined in opposition to non-Muslims. On the contrary, the notions of equality and harmony tend to extend to adherents of other religions as well.

Why is this?

While it is difficult to isolate what drives the impact of the Hajj, the evidence suggests that exposure to Muslims from around the world during the Hajj is important. While we find that Hajjis do not acquire greater formal religious knowledge, they do gain experiential knowledge of the diversity of Islamic practices and beliefs, gender roles within Islam, and, more broadly, the world beyond Pakistan. The Hajj’s impact on such knowledge and on some of the tolerant attitudes toward other groups tends to be larger for those traveling in smaller groups, who are more likely to have a broad range of social interactions with people from different backgrounds during the Hajj. Hajjis also show the largest positive gain in their views of other nationalities for Indonesians, the group they are most likely to observe during the Hajj other than Saudis. Hajjis’ changed views toward women also reflect the exposure channel since the Hajj offers Pakistani pilgrims a novel opportunity to interact with members of the opposite gender in a religious setting, and to observe interactions across the sexes among Muslims from nations which are more accepting of such interactions.

As with computers, so with religion: user experience and interaction is everything.

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