Debunking the “80 Percent of Mosques in America” Myth

On Tuesday night, American blogger Robert Spencer, who leads the anti-Muslim hate group AFDI, appeared on Fox News to discuss Sharia law with host Sean Hannity. During the segment, he advanced the oft-recited statistic that “80 percent of American mosques teach the superiority of Sharia over Constitutional law, and the necessity ultimately to replace one with the other.” Four independent studies, he said, corroborated that number. Here’s the clip:

 

This number has been referenced time and again by anti-Islam activists, media pundits, and politicians. It circulates widely throughout social media, and in 2011, Representative Peter King even mentioned it during his House hearings on “radicalization” in the American Muslim community.

Because the number is so high, and the claim is so alarming, this sound byte seems to get a lot of attention, and lives on even years after it was first injected into public debate. If, after all, it were the case that more than three-quarters of all American mosques supported the overthrow of the constitution, or were run by imams with extreme views, that would be a problem. But just a little bit of digging uncovers just how flimsy that claim — and the “studies” that supposedly confirm it — is.

Here’s the run-down:

There are not four “studies. There is one anecdote from a California Muslim cleric who said, in 1999, that, from his perspective and visits to mosques across the country, “the ideology of extremism has been spread to 80 percent of the American Muslim population.” He offered no empirical data to support his claim — no studies, no surveys, no documentation, no research, no analysis. When pressed, he backtracked, claiming that his criteria for extremism was a focus on the Palestinian struggle. The Washington Post Fact Checker wrote in 2011: “The persistence of this ’80 percent’ statistic is mystifying. It is based largely on a single observation by one Muslim cleric 12 years ago, who has offered no evidence to make his claim.”

The “studies” are hardly independent. The three other “studies” cited by Spencer and others are premised on that sixteen-year old claim, and two of them were conducted, in part, by the same man: David Yerushalmi. Yerushalmi is the attorney for Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer’s group, AFDI. His organization, the Society of Americans for National Existence (SANE), oversaw the 2008 “Mapping Sharia Project” and arranged for an informant to infiltrate the headquarters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and pose as a Muslim intern. That informant, Chris Gaubatz, stole a trove of documents from the organization. A U.S. District Court judge later ruled the affair unlawful, and in 2009, the FBI seized the stolen information from Gaubatz. The 2008 “study” is unavailable to the public online. Links to it result in dead pages, or transfer to blogs which cite it, but provide no substantive information.

They are riddled with bias and methodological flaws. The 2011 “study,” conducted by Yerushalmi and the Israeli scholar Mordechai Kedar (who is a close associate of Pamela Geller and who once said that “the only thing that can deter [Palestinian] terrorists… is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped”), measured “Sharia-adherence” within mosques by looking at things like whether or not imams wore beards, whether or not men and women prayed together, and whether or not worshippers formed straight lines during communal prayer. These practices indicate personal preference, or a cleric’s desire to maintain tradition, but don’t reveal anything about a person’s political views. The measuring stick for the mosque’s alleged promotion of violent beliefs was the simple presence of pre-modern Arabic texts and other documents, and whether or not an imam, when asked by the infiltrator, recommended one of those texts. As the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted, based on this logic, a Christian church whose preacher recommended a reading from Leviticus would be said to favor things like killing adulterers. Similarly, a 2005 report, published by Freedom House, employed researchers with a history of questionable remarks about Islam, and was funded, in part, by the Bradley Foundation, which has donated millions of dollars in recent years to anti-Muslim groups in the United States. The “study” looked at the libraries of just 15 mosques. While Freedom House says it studied more than 200 books from those mosques, it lists just 57 of them, and its four pages of citations include names like the Muslim cleric mentioned above in point 1, along with Steven Emerson, who most recently advanced the “no go zone” myth on Fox News. While its claims are spun as representational of the majority of American mosques, Freedom House admits that they “have made no determination that [the] mosques endorsed any of these material cited in this report, or were aware of their presence.”

The assumptions, biases, and methodological flaws that characterize these “studies” indicate that journalists and audiences should not take these “statistics” and “studies” (and the arguments they bolster) at face value. Spencer’s interview on Fox News also reveals the degree to which commentators like Spencer, Emerson, and Geller influence the public’s views using false information.

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