(Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

--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.

“This is not that important to me,” he said, adding: “I do think there is an inordinate amount of radical influence in mosques.”

King added that he believes he made this comment on his own only once, and since then has simply responded to questions when interviewers raise it, such as in the quote above, when Raymond Arroyo, a guest host on radio’s “Laura Ingraham Show,” brought it up.

Nevertheless, this has become one of the most recognizable quotes associated with King. It has been repeated often in news reports about the upcoming hearings, so a casual listener might think there is a basis in fact. Let’s look at the roots of this figure.

The Facts

This all started with a State Department forum in early 1999 on Islamic extremism that attracted virtually no media attention. That is, until a few months later, when virtually every major Muslim organization in the United States issued a joint statement condemning the remarks by Sheikh Hisham Kabbani as “unsubstantiated allegations that could have a profoundly negative impact on ordinary American Muslims.”

With the passage of 12 years, Kabbani’s comments — made more than two years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — look both remarkably prescient and somewhat off the wall.

Kabbani, who practices Sufism, warned that “there are 5000 suicide bombers being trained by [Osama] bin Laden in Afghanistan who are ready to move to any part of the world and explode themselves.”

But Kabbani also said that bin Laden’s organization had been “able to buy more than 20 atomic nuclear heads from some of the mafia in the ex-Soviet Union, in the republics of the ex-Soviet Union, and they traded it for $30 million and 2 tons of opium.” He added that they were breaking up “these atomic warheads into smaller partitions, like small chips, to be put in any suitcase.”

As part of this discourse, Kabbani said that “Muslims, in general, are peace-loving and tolerant” but that 80 percent of the mosques in the United States are “being run by the extremist ideology, but not acting as a militant movement.”

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.

The Pinocchio Test

The persistence of this “80 percent” statistic is mystifying. It is based on a single observation by one Muslim cleric 12 years ago, who has offered no evidence to make his claim. The one other possible source is the personal observations of Schwartz but as far as we can tell it has not been confirmed by any documented study.

The Fact Checker was inclined to award King quite a few Pinocchios before he came to the phone and essentially took it back. But he has a responsibility to clear the air and say that, in the absence of other evidence, he no longer thinks this 12-year-old “fact” has any relevance. He says that he was not planning to bring up this statistic in his hearing, but the very public platform he has Thursday morning would be a good place to clear the air.

In the quote above, King correctly noted that there was a single source and that it dates back to 1999. But then he went on to say the “number seems accurate,” lending credence to the figure and giving a misleading impression that there is more to back it up.

Two Pinocchios

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