WASHINGTON (RNS)—Liberty University is expected to release a report soon 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 some 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, Colo.
“But this is not a joke. This is a national security threat.”
Caner, 43, repeatedly has 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, 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 formal inquiry.”
Other 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 radical Islam.
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 never was 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 website, 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 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. citizenship.
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 some fundamentalist Christians.
“The people that are doing this do it to make money, or get converts, or to get some personal benefit,” Hooper said.
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.”