Robert Spencer Wrong about claim that 80% of American Mosques are radicalized - update 6/4/15

Robert Spencer Wrong about claim that 80% of American Mosques are radicalized

by Sheila Musaji

On October 4, 2010, Robert Spencer published an article attacking Reza Aslan after they both appeared on ABC’s “This Week”.  Spencer called the segment “a pointless exercise in whitewashing jihad from which most of what I said was edited out, Aslan said to me, “No one is taking you seriously.”

Other than the fact that Spencer was upset that Reza Aslan is getting more media attention than he is, Spencer seemed to be most angry about the fact that Aslan did not accept his claim that 80% of American mosques are radicalized.

Here is what Spencer said

...  Aslan said this in response to my reference to three separate studies—Sheikh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani’s in 1998, the Center for Religious Freedom’s in 2005, and the Mapping Sharia Project’s in 2008—that independently showed that upwards of 80% of mosques in America were preaching hatred of Jews and Christians and the necessity ultimately to impose Islamic rule. Please provide evidence, Mr. Aslan, that any or all of these studies have actually been “bunked,” by anybody, much less “everybody.”  He will not answer this, of course. He won’t and he can’t, because he has no facts to back up his claims. On “This Week,” Reza Aslan was lying again.


As usual, Spencer is a little confused about his facts, as is his partner in the hate group SIOA, Pamela Geller.  Geller also posted an article repeating this long debunked claim. 

There were not “three separate studies”.  Sheikh Kabbani made a statement to that effect in 1999 based his personal point of view and impressions he gathered from visits to about 114 mosques across the country.  These were simple visits, for various reasons, and did not constitute any kind of an investigation or “study”.  As Loonwatch noted

It’s an insult to actual studies out there to call what Kabbani did a “study,” it doesn’t even reach the basic standard of research, documentation or analysis. He conducted a subjective investigation of American mosques, plain and simple. Mosques he went to and where he found or heard things he didn’t agree with were labeled “extremist.” Just because there was a “focus on the Palestinian struggle” at a mosque doesn’t mean it’s “extremist.” What type of absurd methodology is that? It’s remarkable that Spencer would try to pass this off as a “study.”

The other two “studies” made the same claim based on Sheikh Kabbani’s original comment.  In fact, all of the subsequent mentions of this 80% or 85% number all lead back to Sheikh Kabbani as their source.  There is no other source.

Even a journalist who believed Kabbani’s claims and wrote an article praising him for providing this information included this statement:

An under-fire Kabbani explained in 1999 exactly what he meant when he told the State Department that 80 percent of American mosques had been taken over by extremists. His point, he said, was that a “few extremists” were taking over leadership posts, despite a “majority of moderate Muslims,” thus “influencing 80 percent of the mosques.”

Today, he sticks even closer to his guns and adds embellishing data: Kabbani visited 114 mosques in the United States. “Ninety of them were mostly exposed, and I say exposed, to extreme or radical ideology,” he said.

Kabbani bases his exposure conclusion on speeches, board members and materials published. One telltale sign of an extremist mosque, said Kabbani, was an unhealthy focus on the Palestinian struggle.


Right Web at The Institute for Policy Studies has a backgrounder on Freedom House who published the 2005 study mentioned by Spencer.  Here are the relevant passages

In early 2005 the center published “Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Invade American Mosques,” an 89-page study of some 200 documents allegedly “disseminated, published, or otherwise generated by the government of Saudi Arabia and collected from more than a dozen mosques in the United States.” The study concluded that a “totalitarian ideology of hatred” is being “mainstreamed within our borders through the efforts of a foreign government, namely Saudi Arabia.”[14]

Commenting on the study’s findings, Daniel Pipes, head of the hardline neoconservative Middle East Forum, wrote in a 2005 op-ed: “The insidious Saudi assault on America must be made central to the (misnamed) war on terror. The Bush administration needs to confront the domestic menace that the Wahabi kingdom presents to America. That means junking the fantasy of Saudi friendship and seeing the country, like China, as a formidable rival whose ambitions for a very different world order must be repulsed and contained.”[15]

However, the center’s study on Saudi hate ideology was criticized for drawing stark conclusions based on inadequate, selective research. In this case, Freedom House seemed to rifle through the libraries of only a handful of mosques across the United States and then implied in its conclusions that what it found in these mosques applied generally to mosques throughout the country. The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) opined in a review of the Freedom House report: “The study clearly shows that these 15 American mosques included some very hateful books in [their] libraries. However, to suggest that all American mosques are filled with such publications is a stretch.”[16]

ISPU criticized the center for its “uncritical” support of the view, promoted by Hisham Kabbani and Stephen Schwartz, that 80-85 percent of American mosques are controlled by Wahabbis. The institute pointed to its own 2004 study of Detroit-area mosques, which found that only 6 percent of the city’s mosque-attending population had salafist/wahabbi views, and concluded “the vast majority of American Muslims eschew extremist views.” Although its study received widespread attention and was released months before the Freedom House report, says ISPU, the Center for Religious Freedom failed to acknowledge or refer to its results.[17]

ISPU concluded: “American-Muslim leaders must thoroughly scrutinize this study. Despite its limitations, the study highlights an ugly undercurrent in modern Islamic discourse that American-Muslims must openly confront. However, in the vigor to expose strains of extremism, we must not forget that open discussion is the best tool to debunk the extremist literature rather than a suppression of First Amendment rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.”[18]

So, for this major “study”, they visited “more than a dozen” mosques.  That is an incredibly small sample. 

Loonwatch notes about Spencer’s reference to this study that

Further eroding Spencer’s point, this study does not even claim that 80% or even a high percentage of American mosques are radicalized in any way. Let me repeat that – the study makes NO claim that 80% or some other percent of American mosques are radicalized. It simply does not say what Spencer claims it says.  ...  Spencer’s deception and lack of intellectual integrity in this instance is blatant, he not only cites the Center’s “study” as proof of the 80%-percent-of-mosques-are-extremists-conspiracy-theory, but he also fails to mention that the only semblance of what he claims in the study is a regurgitation of Kabbani’s (false and discredited) assertion,

Sheikh Kabbani, perhaps the U.S.’s leading moderate Muslim leader, says that a substantial percentage of American mosques have Wahhabi-funded Imams

Isn’t this interesting? What sort of credible “study” perfunctorily sites the non-evidentiary based assertions of a lone individual without questioning his methodology? The language in the above sentence is also cause for alarm, anytime a claim such as “the U.S.’s leading moderate Muslim leader” is made we should view it not only with caution but skepticism. This sort of heavily biased and subjective language is employed now by Right-Wingers and Republicans to describe “Zuhdi Jasser” the Islamophobes favorite Muslim.


On TAM we have published a number of articles debunking the findings of CSP and SANE’s Mapping Sharia Project which also repeat this claim made by Sheikh Kabbani.  For very detailed discussions about MSP and its reports, see: —Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy Sharia Reports a Threat to American IdealsMapping Sharia Project Goes Beyond Islamophobia to Raving, Paranoid, In(SANE)ity!Mapping Sharia Report In(SANE)ity Redux


According to a Media Matters article, Daniel Pipes was one of the first to begin popularizing this 80% meme.  Pipes published an article in the Forward titled, “Needed: Muslims against terror.” Pipes promoted Kabbani’s claim, calling him “courageous”:

Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, a leader of the Naqshbandi Sufi order in the United States and the founder of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, has established himself as a leading spokesman for moderate Islam and anti-terrorism. Mr. Kabbani earned his stripes the hard way, by taking on nearly the entirety of the radicalized Muslim organizations America. He gave a courageous speech at the State Department in January 1999 in which he accurately noted that extremists had “taken over 80% of the mosques” in America. In response, more than 100 mosques and organizations signed a petition condemning Mr. Kabbani and calling for a boycott of him and his organization. [Forward, 7/16/99]

In an article on Stephen Schwartz, I note that:

In 2003, Schwartz testified at a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security hearing on the topic of “Wahhabism and Islam in the United States”. In this testimony he stated the unfounded claim that At the present time, Shia and other non-Wahhabi Muslim community leaders estimate that 80 percent of American mosques – out of a total ranging between an official estimate of 1,200 and an unofficial figure of 4-6,000 – are under Wahhabi control.

Schwartz himself identified the source of this claim “The same influences are brought to bear throughout the ten-million-strong Muslim community in America, as well as those in Europe. In the US, 80 percent of mosques are estimated by the Sufi Hisham al-Kabbani, born in Lebanon and now living in the US, to be under the control of Wahhabi imams, who preach extremism.”

Rep. Peter King appeared on the Laura Ingraham program and repeated this claim that “80 percent of the mosques in this country are controlled by radical Imams.”  Media Matters pointed out that:

King’s Claim Is The Latest Example Of A 10-Year-Old, Unsubstantiated Smear. King’s claim that “80 percent of the mosques in this country are controlled by radical Imams” is the latest example of a smear that began in 1999. The claim, which is based on a single, unsubstantiated statement by California cleric Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, has been repeated by conservatives and anti-Islam activists for more than 10 years, despite a complete lack of evidence to back it up, and Kabbani’s admission that his criteria for extremism was “a focus on the Palestinian struggle.”

...  Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani Claims, Without Any Evidence, That “80 Percent” Of Mosques Are Influenced By “Extremist Ideology.” In January 1999, the State Department conducted an open forum on “Islamic Extremism: A Viable Threat to U.S. National Security.” It was during the forum that Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, a Sufi cleric from California, appeared to have first made the claim that Muslims with extremist ideology had taken “over more than 80% of the mosques that have been established in the US”.

...  Kabbani was later asked about the statistic and continued to claim that “80% of” American mosques “have been being [sic] run by the extremist ideology, but not acting as a militant movement.” He claimed that “the board of trustees of these mosques is being run by these extremists.” He again provided no evidence to back up his claim.

This Media Matters article gives a timeline documenting the history of this claim, and how it was spread from 1999 to 2010. 

In one of a series of articles we published on TAM regarding Rep. King’s hearings - Answers to Peter King’s Claims About the American Muslim Community, I wrote:


This claim by Rep. King and others is based on nothing at all. The first time it was stated was by Sheikh Hisham Kabbani in 1999. It is a number taken from thin air. There have been no studies or anything else to support such a baseless claim. And, Sheikh Kabbani subsequently said that his criteria of an “extremist mosque” was one that was “focus[ed] on the Palestinian struggle.”

Karen Leonard, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and author of numerous books, including Muslims in the United States: The State of Research, called the claim that 85 percent of mosques are run by extremists “nonsense”. “American Muslim mosques are run very differently from those in many of the immigrants’ home countries, and by adopting a “congregational” model in order to qualify for tax exemption in the U.S., most immigrant mosques now have constitutions and elected governing boards and the elections are open to public scrutiny, thus bringing up, for example, questions about the participation of women as voters or board members. Board members are usually highly educated professionals, and they hire imams, mostly still from abroad since American seminaries producing imams here are just beginning to be established. If an imam is too extreme he will not be hired or retained, in my experience; I know of no extremist mosque in southern California.” **

It is one of what I call everyone “knows” claims about Islam and Muslims that has no basis in fact.

In an article titled Peter King’s claim about radical Muslim imams: Is it true?, Glenn Kessler wrote

“The only real testimony we have on it was actually from Sheikh Kabbani, who was a Muslim leader during the Clinton Administration, he testified, this is back in 1999 and 2000, before the State Department that he thought over 80 percent of the mosques in this country are controlled by radical Imams. Certainly from what I’ve seen and dealings I’ve had, that number seems accurate.” —Rep. Peter King, Jan. 24, 2011

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, plans to hold controversial hearings Thursday on Islamic radicalism. King jokes that these hearings may make him famous “for a week,” but he has already become well known for an assertion he once made that “80 to 85 percent” of the mosques in the United States are controlled by radical imams.

King now dismisses the comment as inconsequential, saying in an interview that he has no idea if the estimate is correct.

“I don’t think it matters that much” because, according to Islamic leaders King said he has spoken with, imams do not have as much influence among the faithful as do priests or rabbis and because a relatively small percentage of American Muslims attend mosques.

...  Kabbani offered no evidence to support this assertion and has provided little evidence since. In 2001, he told The New York Times that he had visited 114 mosques in the United States and “ninety of them were mostly exposed, and I say exposed, to extreme or radical ideology”—through speeches, books and board members. “He said that a telltale sign of an extremist mosque was a focus on the Palestinian struggle,” the Times reported.

In the interview, King said he did not rely just on Kabbani’s statement but also on testimony before a Senate panel in 2003 by Stephen Schwartz, a Muslim convert who at the time was affiliated with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Schwartz has been a prominent opponent of Wahhabi Islam—a strict sect of Islam described by some as extremist—and he testified, “Shia and other non-Wahhabi Muslim community leaders estimate that 80 percent of American mosques—out of a total ranging between an official estimate of 1,200 and an unofficial figure of 4-6,000—are under Wahhabi control.”

Schwartz did not identify these community leaders, though before this appearance he had previously attributed this estimate to Kabbani’s statement at the State Department. In an email, he said he “heard it from Kabbani but also heard it from the leaders of the main Shia mosques in the U.S.” and that having attended services in the U.S. and other Western countries he believes “Sunni mosques in the U.S. are still, in 2011, overwhelmingly dominated by fundamentalists.” He added: “Fixing a quantitative level is difficult but 75-80 percent still seems right to me.”

Meanwhile, there have been efforts to actually measure the sentiment in American mosques.

University of Kentucky professor Ihsan Bagby in 2004 published a study of Detroit mosques that concluded that approximately 93 percent of mosque participants endorse both community and political involvement and more than 87 percent of mosque leaders support participation in the political process. Most were registered to vote and “because of these moderate views, mosque participants cannot be described as isolationists, rejecters of American society or extremists.” (Some conservatives have noted that the study also found strong support for universal health care, affirmative action and Islamic law in Muslim-majority nations, as well as deep concern about immorality in the United States.)  King said he was unaware of the Detroit study.

Rep. King, Robert Spencer, Stephen Schwartz, Daniel Pipes, Frank Gaffney, David Yerushalmi, Mordechai Kedar, and all of those who continue to pass along this false claim might look at some real studies and reports.  They can find a fairly comprehensive list at Existing Reports, Polls, and Studies on Islam, Muslims & Radicalization.  See TAM’s A Who’s Who of the Anti-Muslim/Anti-Arab/Islamophobia Industry for more on each of the individuals involved in spreading these false claims.

UPDATE 3/30/2015

Right Wing Watch notes in the article Benghazi ‘Citizens Committee’ Member: Ban New Mosques In US Because 80 Percent ‘Preach Sedition’: “Retired Navy Admiral James “Ace” Lyons, an author of the Center For Security Policy’s “Team B II” report on Islam in America and a member of the Citizens Committee on Benghazi, claimed in a radio interview this week that 80 percent of American mosques “preach sedition” and urged an end to Muslim immigration and a ban on the building of mosques.”  Read the full article for their debunking of this false claim that just won’t go away.

UPDATE 6/4/2015

In a complete refusal to deal with reality, Robert Spencer is still repeating this nonsense.  The Bridge Initiative has responded to Spencer’s most recent repetition of this claim on Fox News in the article Debunking the “80% of American Mosques” Myth. “... 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. ...”


Dispute Between U.S. Muslim Groups Goes Public,  Richard H. Curtiss

Expert Calls Claim That 85 Percent Of Mosques Are Radicalized “Nonsense”, Hardeep Dhillon

Peter King’s claim about radical Muslim imams: Is it true?, Glenn Kessler 

The mainstreaming of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, Steve Rendall

Spencer’s Radicalized Mosque Claim Gets Debunked

‘Study’ of Mosques Reflects Anti-Muslim Bias of Co-Author David Yerushalmi, Robert Steinback

The War On Sharia Started Long Before You Ever Heard ‘Ground Zero Mosque’, Rachel Sladjda

Zombie Lie: Right Still Clinging To Decade-Old Fabrication About Radicalized Mosques


Originally published 6/9/2011