The lieutenant governor of Texas has twice declared the discovery of "prayer rugs" on the Texas side of the border with Mexico, also suggesting members of the Islamic State group have possibly snuck in.
At the September 2014, Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., David Dewhurst described suspicions of an impending invasion of terrorists crossing the Rio Grande. As a sign, he said, "prayer rugs have recently been found on the Texas side of the border in the brush," according to CSPAN2 video posted online by the liberal news site Talking Points Memo.
Of late, some Texas-Mexico border claims have lacked factual footing. In September 2014, PolitiFact rated Mostly False a claim the Islamic State group was operating in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. PolitiFact Texas subsequently rated Pants on Fire a California congressman’s statement that at least 10 ISIS fighters had been caught by the U.S. Border Patrol.
So Dewhurst, who about a week earlier made a similar claim about prayer rugs in a border security panel discussion at the Texas Tribune Festival, made us wonder.
For starters, scholars and Muslim religious figures we reached for this story warned against linking Muslim prayer to a person’s interest in terrorism. In themselves, experts said, the rugs -- like the ones pictured below in a photo emailed to us by Anees Siddiqui of Austin -- represent cleanliness; they’re placed on the ground where a Muslim believer prays. Also, the experts said, the rugs are not used by all the world’s estimated 1.6 billion Muslims.
Courtesy photo: Anees Siddiqui, spokesman, the Islamic Center of Greater Austin.
To our inquiry, Andrew Barlow, a state spokesman for Dewhurst, who lost his re-election bid this spring, emailed us two URLs and said, "Lt. Governor Dewhurst based his statement on this report: ...and this article."
The latest provided account was a Sept. 11, 2014, online news report by KTRH, 740 AM in Houston, quoting Ed Turzanski, a former U.S. intelligence officer and professor of political science and government at La Salle University in Philadelphia, saying: "We've seen Muslim prayer rugs and other items that have been left behind by people entering the country illegally."
By phone, Turzanski told us Border Patrol agents, in numerous private conversations over the past decade, told him prayer rugs were found at the border, but it’s been "a number of years" since the last report. He also offered to try to put knowledgeable sources in touch with us; we heard no more.
Otherwise, he warned, government agencies would not admit prayer rug discoveries to the press.
He said officials in President Barack Obama’s administration forbid the Border Patrol from speaking about anything that "goes against the administration’s border security narrative."
The other news story Barlow noted, posted June 30, 2014, on Breitbart.com, a conservative news and commentary website, quoted an unidentified "source who works among independent American security contractors along the southern border in Arizona and Texas" saying six Middle Easterners had been picked up in Laredo, Texas, "right along (the area) with the ranchers in Texas finding prayer rugs in their ranches."
After we tried to contact the Breitbart reporter, Kerry Picket, Kurt Bardella, president of Endeavor Strategic Communications, the firm that runs public relations for Breitbart, said by phone Breitbart could not reveal the source who described the prayer rug discoveries. He also said the organization could not tell us what group the source belongs to, where the source lives or why the source believed the ranchers’ findings were prayer rugs.
Bardella said: "The source stands by his statement."
Other accounts and authorities
Via the Nexis news database, we spotted news reports of prayer rugs found along the border as long ago as 2005. None of the reports presented on-the-record sourced-by-name evidence.
Separately, federal and local law enforcement authorities denied receiving reports of found prayer rugs while Tom Vinger, spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, emailed us that the agency doesn’t track that information.
By phone, Joe Gutierrez Jr., spokesman for the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector, said he had heard "nothing" about prayer rug finds.
Gutierrez said he passed our query on to all Texas Border Patrol sectors by email. A response came from Rod Kise, a public information officer at the Rio Grande Valley Sector headquarters in Edinburg. Kise emailed: "Regarding the discovery of prayer rugs along the Texas-Mexico Border, we had no reports of prayer rugs being found." Kise also said: "It is not unusual to find trash/etc. along smuggling routes."
By email, Nick Georgiou, managing editor of the Laredo Morning Times, said the newspaper "is not aware of any reports of Muslim prayer rugs found near the Texas-Mexico border around Laredo."
To our inquiry, Brenda Medina-Moreno, a Laredo spokeswoman for the Webb County sheriff’s office, said by email: "The Webb County Sheriff’s Office has not come across any prayer rugs and/or reports of the rugs along our border crossings."
Experts: Photograph not a prayer rug
The July 9, 2014, news story was written for Breitbart.com by Picket, who also wrote the story on prayer rugs found by ranchers near Laredo, Texas that Dewhurst relied on.
By email, Breitbart spokesman Bardella pointed out an editor’s note attached to the end of the July 2014 story. The note said: "We reasonably relied on the statements and picture provided by a third-party source regarding the finding of an apparent prayer shawl at the border. There are now conflicting reports about those statements; however, the third party source still fully stands behind the accuracy of his original account."
To get our own sense of the photo’s accuracy, we sent a copy of the photograph and a request for analysis to over a dozen U.S. religious figures and scholars. We received eight replies, with all the respondents saying the pictured item did not look like a prayer rug.
Frank Griffel, chairman of the Council of Middle East Studies at Yale University, said: "Is this a joke? What makes people think that the vague cloth at the border is a prayer rug? I can't see any connection. It's an old piece of cloth and it has no resemblance to a rug, even less so to a prayer rug."
Samer Ali, associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas, said it didn’t look like a prayer rug because it was too thin, had seams, had hems and didn’t look like any design he’d seen on a prayer rug.
Mustafa Umar, director of education and outreach at the Islamic Institute of Orange County in California, said: "The checkered pattern is not characteristic of a prayer rug and was in fact discouraged by the Prophet Muhammad to use because that pattern distracts the Muslim from prayer."
Dewhurst said "prayer rugs have recently been found" in brush on the Texas side of the U.S.-Mexico border.
This claim is weakened because it’s not backed up by sourced-by-name witnesses nor did any authority confirm such a find when we inquired. If prayer rugs were showing up to someone’s alarm, we think there'd be legitimate photographs and the rugs themselves available for inspection.
Another hole: While people of the Muslim faith surely cross the Mexico-Texas border – that’s not at issue in this fact check – it’s unreasonable to presume the presence of prayer rugs means individuals carrying them intend to commit violent acts on U.S.soil, an implication of Dewhurst’s declaration.
In the end, we find his statement incorrect and ridiculous. Rugs (we mean Pants) on Fire!