Liberty University is
expected to release a report this month on whether Ergun Caner, president of
the school’s Baptist Theological Seminary, fabricated or exaggerated his life
story as a former Muslim extremist rescued by Jesus.
Caner is no ordinary
ex-Muslim. His story has made him a favorite in conservative Christian circles,
and many credit the charismatic preacher with helping boost enrollment at the
school founded by the late Jerry Falwell.
At the same time, Caner has
become the poster boy for critics who say he’s just the latest charlatan in a
line of supposedly ex-Muslim terrorists who have found an audience among
Christian fundamentalists seeking to attack Islam.
Most worrisome, the critics
say, is that the self-styled former terrorists have been welcomed as “experts”
on Islam and terrorism by religious institutions, universities, media outlets,
members of Congress and even the military.
“These guys are to real
terrorists what a squirt gun is to an AK-47,” said Mikey Weinstein, president
of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who has battled claims of
religious discrimination at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs,
“But this is not a joke.
This is a national security threat.”
Caner, 43, has repeatedly
claimed to have been raised as a Muslim extremist in Turkey, but moved to Ohio
as a teenager in 1978, and converted to Christianity. “Until I was 15 years
old, I was in the Islamic youth jihad,” he said in a November 2001 sermon at
the First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla. “I was trained to do that which
was done on 11 September, as were thousands of youth.”
In 2002, he wrote Inside
Islam: An Insider’s Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs, with his brother Emir,
the president of Truett-McConnell College, a Baptist school in Cleveland, Ga.
In recent months, however,
skeptical bloggers, such as London-based Mohammad Khan of FakeExMuslims.com,
and Oklahoma-based Debbie Kaufman of the Ministry of Reconciliation blog, began
unearthing documents and statements by Caner contradicting his own claims.
The Caner brothers’ own
book, for example, states they were born in Sweden, not Turkey, and spent most
of their time with their non-Muslim mother, not their Muslim father, after the
parents divorced in the U.S.
Records indicate the family
arrived in the U.S. in 1974, four years earlier than Ergun Caner has claimed.
So far, Caner and Liberty
officials have declined comment.
Chancellor Jerry Falwell
Jr., in a terse May 10 statement, said only that “in light of the fact that
several newspapers have raised questions, we felt it necessary to initiate a
terrorists-turned-Christians have invited scrutiny as well, including U.S.
citizens Walid Shoebat, author of Why We Want To Kill You, and Kamal Saleem,
who has worked for Focus on the Family, and recently wrote, The Blood of
Lambs. Like Caner’s book, their books purport to be insider explorations of
Shoebat, who has said “Islam
is the devil,” claims to have been recruited by the Palestine Liberation
Organization as a teenager. In 1977, he has said, he threw a bomb on the roof
of the Bethlehem branch of an Israeli bank. The bank, however, has no record of
the incident, which was never reported by Israeli news outlets.
When asked by The Jerusalem
Post in 2008 why there were no records, Shoebat surmised that the incident was
not serious enough to merit news coverage. Yet four years earlier, he told
Britain’s Sunday Telegraph: “I was terribly relieved when I heard on the news
later that evening that no one had been hurt or killed by my bomb.”
On his web site, Saleem
claims to have carried out terror missions in Israel, fought with Afghan
Mujahedeen against the Soviets, and came to the U.S. hoping to wage jihad
against America. He also once claimed on the site that he was descended from
the “grand wazir of Islam,” until skeptics pointed out that it was a
nonsensical term, akin to calling someone the “governor of Christianity.”
Skeptics point out that
Shoebat and Saleem claim to have carried out their terrorist activities in the
1960s and 1970s, long before modern Islamic radicalism emerged in the 1980s.
They also question why, if their terror claims are true, they’ve been able to
retain their U.S.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman
for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Caner, Shoebat, Saleem and
others like them belong to an “industry” that is often perpetuated by
“The people that are doing
this do it to make money, or get converts, or to get some personal benefit,”
Muslims and non-Muslims
alike are troubled that these alleged former terrorists have been welcomed as
experts. They have appeared on CNN and Fox News and spoken at Harvard Law
School. In 2008, they were featured speakers at a terrorism conference
sponsored by the U.S. Air Force Academy, the findings of which were to be
distributed across the Pentagon and Capitol Hill.
With the U.S. engaged in
active combat in the heart of the Islamic world, Weinstein believes Christian
fundamentalists in the U.S. military are actively promoting
terrorists-turned-Christians — with potentially deadly consequences.
“These guys are spewing
Islamophobic hatred, and the Pentagon laps it up. This is the kind of prejudice
and bigotry that can lead to genocide,” said Weinstein.
Despite the evidence against
them, Hooper believes these people will continue to be welcomed by some
institutions because they preach what some audiences want to hear.
“As long as you attack Islam
and demonize Muslims, you’re going to get a platform,” he said. “It doesn’t
matter if your facts and background are wrong.”