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.
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.
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.”