Beliefnet

My brother-in-law will be performing the Hajj this year, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that every able-bodied Muslim must make once in their lifetime. He goes every year, helping out a group of new pilgrims on their journey. But each pilgrimage holds a special, distinctive place in his heart. I still remember when I went to Mecca almost six years ago now. It was an experience I will never forget. To go back to the land of my father Abraham and follow in his footsteps, to finally get to visit resting place of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina, to commune with millions of my fellow Muslims from all around the world--it was an experience that has changed me for the rest of my life.

With respect to the communion of believers, it is this aspect that makes the Hajj pilgrimage so powerful (and so difficult). There are about two million people all doing the same thing at the same time. Rivers of people flow smoothly into a sea of humanity during the various rituals and rites of the Hajj.

But sometimes things happen at the Hajj that makes wonder if people get what it is supposed to be about. Last year a group of pilgrims chanted "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" when they were stoning a set of three pillars that represent the devil in Mina. This made some wonder, like Columbia Business School professor Ray Fishman, whether going to Mecca may make Muslims more extremist: "Such behavior raised concerns that the Hajj is a breeding ground for anti-Western sentiment ..." Fishman said. Some have warned that the Hajj may even be a breeding ground for terrorism.

As far as I am concerned, I never came back with radical views. In fact evidence has shown that those people who go on the Hajj actually come back with more moderate views. In a study conducted by researchers David Clingingsmith, Asim Khwaja, and Michael Kramer, more than 1,600 Pakistanis were surveyed about their views on various issues. About one-half of that group went on the Hajj in 2006. The two groups of Pakistanis were very similar, and the only difference between the two was the effect of the Hajj.

The study showed that nearly 70 percent of those who went on the Hajj reported a positive view of other Muslim countries, as opposed to just over 50 percent who did not go to Hajj. The Hajjis (those who performed Hajj) were 25 percent less likely to believe that it is impossible for Muslims of different ethnicities or sects to live in harmony. They also were less likely to believe men were intellectually superior to women, and they expressed concern about crimes against women in Pakistan.

Moreover, those who went to Mecca were more likely to believe that people of all religions can live together and were less likely to feel that violence--such as suicide bombings or attacks on civilians--could be justified in dealing with disagreements between Muslims and non-Muslims.

The findings of this study were both extraordinary and extremely heartening. These days, pundits, experts, and commentators alike (yours truly included) are all weighing in on how the next U.S. administration should deal with the problem of terrorism and violent extremism. The strategies are many: Military, economic, strategic, and ideological. While I believe that the "die hard" terrorists will not be convinced by anything short of brute military force, a very important strategy to defeat the scourge of Al Qaeda is to dry up the potential recruiting grounds for future terrorists.

An extremely effective way to do so is to send more people to the Hajj, especially those who are susceptible to becoming extremists. As an American, I am quite blessed to be able to go to the Hajj quite easily. The same cannot be said, however, of other Muslims around the world. As professor Fishman noted, "The Hajj is a huge expense for a typical Pakistani. The cost of making the trip starts at $2,500, nearly three times Pakistan's average income. Poor families save for years in order to attend ... Despite these hardships, there are many more Pakistanis who wish to go to Mecca each year than there are Saudi visas. In 2006, nearly 140,000 applicants vied for 80,000 visas through the Pakistan government's Hajj program."

We should help these and other Muslims go and perform the Hajj. I remember how happy the Muslims with whom I came into contact felt being in Mecca and performing the pilgrimage. You could see and feel it from their faces. For them, it is truly a once-in-a-lifetime trip because they save their whole lives in order to go. The authorities should relax visa restrictions and let more people attend the Hajj. True, it is crowded already, and the prospect of letting more people go on the Hajj could make the already difficult crowding situation worse.

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