Allies of Liberty University seminary president largely silent as inquiry on Muslim past grows

The future of a prominent Southern Baptist preacher who converted from Islam may depend on which version of his past is closer to the truth.

Ergun Caner's supporters know him as a devout Muslim who discovered Jesus Christ at an Ohio church and became a popular leader at Liberty University, the Virginia evangelical school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

His critics have a different version: an opportunist who exaggerated vague boyhood memories in his Muslim family to paint himself as a one-time extremist while enriching himself and sowing tension between the world's two largest faiths.

Lately, his critics are easier to find than his friends. Prominent Evangelical leaders who in the past blurbed his books, promoted him as an expert and defended him against charges of inflammatory anti-Muslim remarks have been publicly silent since Liberty announced it would investigate the claims against Caner.

"Part of you is going, Haha, I told you so, and another part is saying, That's really sad," said Kelly Wentworth, executive director of the Atlanta-based American Islamic Fellowship, which works to strengthen bonds between Muslims and other religious believers.

Caner has been a polarizing figure since shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when he and his brother, Emir, emerged as leading Christian critics of Islam.

"Ergun and Emir Caner are trophies of God's grace," wrote Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, in the foreword to "Unveiling Islam" by the Caners. "Once devout followers of Allah, now of Jesus of Nazareth."

Land is one of several Evangelical leaders contacted by The Associated Press for this story who either did not respond or declined to comment.

Much of their credibility came from their personal history — their testimony, in evangelical Christian terminology. Ergun Caner claimed at various times in front of various audiences to have emigrated to the U.S. as a radical Muslim teenager from Turkey, until becoming a Christian at an Ohio church.

Bloggers — both Muslim and Christian — have chipped away at this story for months, producing video and audio evidence of Caner apparently contradicting himself, and posting court documents showing that Caner's family lived in Ohio starting when he was a small boy.

Neither Caner brother has responded to repeated requests for comment. Students at Lynchburg, Va.-based Liberty have rallied to his side, creating a Facebook group proclaiming their support.

"We know Dr. Caner to be a man of integrity," said Alane Moore, president of the seminary's student government.

"He's very down to earth. The same guy you see on stage at campus church on a Wednesday night is the same guy you'll see in the office and the same guy you'll see in Walmart," she said.

If the inquiry finds he fabricated sections of his past, though, that could change, according to author Kevin Roose.

"It's not as if he's accused of lying on his taxes or something totally immaterial to his work," said Roose, author of "The Unlikely Disciple," about the semester he spent at Liberty. "This is his testimony, and Christians take testimony very seriously. It's a story that authenticates you in your Christian journey."

On the surface, Caner seems unperturbed, occasionally posting humorous musings on summer classes to his Twitter account. But in the weeks before Liberty launched its inquiry, Caner and others were trying to remove material used by his blogger critics from the spotlight.

An April radio broadcast by Focus on the Family called "From Jihad to Jesus" featured a 2001 sermon in which Caner talked about having been raised in Turkey and trained to participate in a jihad against the West.

It has since been removed from the Focus site at Caner's request, a publicist there said.

Several videos of Caner posted to YouTube by a London-based Muslim student named Mohammad Khan, one of the earliest bloggers to zero in on Caner's biography, have been removed over copyright complaints by Liberty University's seminary and by John Ankerberg.

Ankerberg, a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based minister, hosts a TV show on which Caner has been a guest at least eight times, according to Caner's website. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Caner's longtime critics are not being as reticent.

"He's done enormous harm," said Charles Kimball, director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma and former director of the Middle East Office for the National Council of Churches.

"To listen to someone like Caner, you'd think house meetings to decide what to blow up next are daily fare for all Muslims," Kimball, an ordained Baptist minister, said.

Muslim organizations say that's why these questions about Caner's past should have been raised years earlier.

"We've known for some time that his past is not what he's portraying," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C.-based Muslim civil rights and advocacy group. "But the whole 'former Muslim' gig is quite profitable these days. It plays well to certain audiences."

The contradictions in Caner's story don't add up to a repudiation of his ministry, though, argues Hussein Wario, author of "Cracks in the Crescent" and a convert from Islam to Christianity.

Wario points out that no one has questioned some core elements of Caner's story: namely, that his father was a Turkish Muslim active in his local mosque, and that Caner was a Muslim until he converted as a teenager.

"There are enough discrepancies in Dr. Caner's stories to raise doubts, but not enough to dismiss him as a fraud," Wario said.