RALEIGH, N.C. – The Southern Baptist minister who leads Liberty University’s seminary made a career as a go-to authority on Islam for the evangelical world, selling thousands of books and touring the country as a former Muslim who discovered Jesus Christ.
Now Ergun Caner is being investigated by the Lynchburg, Va., university — founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell — over allegations that he fabricated or embellished his past.
An unlikely coalition of Muslim and Christian bloggers, pastors and apologists has led the charge with video and audio clips they claim show Caner making contradictory statements.
Caner has since changed the biographical information on his website and asked friendly organizations to remove damning clips from their websites, but the questions are not going away.
“There are those of us who aren’t going to be quiet until we find out why integrity is being compromised,” said Debbie Kaufman, a member of a Southern Baptist church in Enid, Okla., who persistently blogged about Caner. “Integrity should never be a question in the church.”
Caner, a barrel-chested man with a goatee and a shaved head, has been a celebrity in the world of evangelical Christianity since 2001, when he and his brother began appearing on news shows and other venues to discuss Islam in the aftermath of 9/11.
The prolific author and charismatic speaker became president of the seminary at Liberty in 2005. Since then, enrollment has roughly tripled to around 4,000 students.
Much of his celebrity comes from his exotic background.
He told The Associated Press in 2002 that he was born in Sweden to a Turkish father and Swedish mother, who brought the family to Ohio in 1969, when he was about 3 years old. He said he accepted Christ as a teenager at a Baptist church in Columbus and then pursued ministry, getting a degree from Criswell College, a Baptist school in Dallas.
It’s difficult to verify the depth of Caner’s faith as a Muslim when he was a child. His father is dead and information about his mother couldn’t be immediately found. His brother Emir, also a Christian convert and scholar, responded in a brief e-mail that he has not decided whether to speak publicly.
While few doubt that Caner was raised as a Muslim, they question changing biographical details in his speeches and whether he was a believer to the extent he told audiences.
In a 2001 sermon at a church in Plano, Texas, he said, “I was born in Sweden, raised in Turkey, came to America in 1978. When I came to America I came through Brooklyn, N.Y., of all places, which is where I learned English.”
Later, he told the audience, “I’m not just a Muslim, I’m not just a Sunni, and I wasn’t just involved in the Islamic jihad. I was the son of a muezzin,” referring to the person who calls Muslims to prayer.
It’s not immediately known if his father was a muezzin at any point or what the basis is for his claims that he trained for jihad. His father, Acar Caner, belonged to the Islamic Foundation of Central Ohio, according to a death notice, but calls to that group and a mosque linked to it were not returned. A call to his widow, Acar’s second wife, was not immediately returned.
In an undated interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network’s website, Caner said: “The only thing I ever learned about Christianity I learned from my imam and the scholars in the mosque. Then when I began to be trained in Madras we heard even more about Christians, that they are our enemies.”
It’s not clear if the transcript should read “madrasas,” a type of religious school for Muslims, or “Madras,” a city in India. Neither makes sense in the context of a 1970s boyhood in central Ohio.
Initially, Caner dismissed the criticism as typical attacks by Muslims on converts. The first to prominently question Caner was London-based college student Mohammad Khan, who began posting videos of Caner’s sermons and criticizing him on points of Islamic theology and Arabic pronunciation.
“We Muslims can spot his lies with ease,” Khan wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. “He is hindering the spread of the Christian faith, not helping it.”
Before long, James White, director of Alpha & Omega Ministries in Phoenix, had joined in. White debates Muslim scholars along with atheists and members of other faiths, and was irked at Caner’s claims to have debated a number of prominent experts on Islam. White couldn’t find any audio or video record of the debates, and felt rebuffed when he sought clarification from Caner. Then he began to dig.
“Ergun Caner goes around pretending to do what I do,” said White. “If someone’s going around claiming to be an expert on Islam and he really isn’t, I have to point that out.”
Liberty’s inquiry is overdue, said the Rev. Wade Burleson, pastor at Kaufman’s church. Burleson said he was pressured to have Kaufman take down her posts, including by a phone call from Caner to Burleson’s father.
“Liberty University, until the announcement about the investigation, was acting as if they weren’t a Christian university,” Burleson said. “They were covering up sin.”
Liberty University officials say they won’t speak publicly until the probe is complete, expected June 30.
While they wait, some of the bloggers say good could still come out of it. Burleson said Caner can become a stronger advocate for the gospel if he comes clean about his past.
Kaufman and Khan, meanwhile, have forged an improbable friendship across thousands of miles and religious differences, exchanging e-mails daily and asking each other about their respective faiths.
“I’m hoping that Muslims and those that aren’t Christians will see there are those of us who believe what the Bible teaches,” she said.
Caner, who remains the president of Liberty’s seminary, remains publicly silent. On the day the university announced its inquiry, he posted on Twitter: “Unshakable faith at midnight makes the dawn that much sweeter,” he wrote. “God is still God in the darkness!”