Liberty University's board of directors has declined to take public action against Ergun Caner, president of the university seminary, as bloggers raise doubts about Caner's account of his childhood as a Muslim.
Elmer Towns, co-founder of Liberty University and dean of the School of Religion, says there will be no official reprimand or demotion of Ergun Caner. Towns, who had a hand in hiring Caner, says the Liberty board has held an inquiry and directors are satisfied that Caner has done nothing theologically inappropriate.
"It's not an ethical issue, it's not a moral issue," Towns told Christianity Today on April 27. "We give faculty a certain amount of theological leverage. The arguments of the bloggers would not stand up in court."
By all accounts, Caner is an energetic, entertaining, and engaging professor who has tripled enrollment at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary since his installation as president of the Lynchburg, Virginia, school five years ago.
Caner and his youngest brother Emir gained prominence as Muslim experts following the September 2001 terrorist attacks. The following year, the brothers wrote Unveiling Islam: An Insider's Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs (Kregel).
In 2003, Jerry Falwell Sr. hired Ergun to teach theology and church history at the Southern Baptist-affiliated seminary's School of Religion. When Caner became the first former Muslim to head an evangelical seminary in 2005, he gained further appeal on the apologetics lecture circuit.
But lately, both Muslims and Reform-minded Southern Baptists are questioning biographical details provided by the 43-year-old Ergun. The blogosphere has been abuzz with critiques of statements Caner has made about himself in speeches, sermons, and online videos.
Foes want Caner to admit to what they label as exaggerations and lies, including claims such as:
- Growing up in Turkey, when he actually grew up in Ohio.
- Being raised in a devout Muslim home, rather than a nominal one.
- Having been involved in Islamic jihad.
- Having debated dozens of Muslims about the Islamic faith, although there is no video or audio evidence.
Behind the squabble is Mohammad Khan, a 22-year-old London-based computing student who has posted 17 talks by Caner on YouTube. The videos contain slow-motion segments superimposed with Khan's comments. Khan, a Muslim, says among the many troubling aspects of Caner's video presentations are several examples when Caner claims to be reciting the Shehada, part of the Islamic creed, when in actuality he is quoting an important prayer from the Qur'an. The two are very different.
"Christians are under the impression that he is some sort of Islamic expert," Khan told CT. "He isn't."
Both Khan and James R. White, director of the Phoenix-based Alpha & Omega Ministries, a Christian apologetics ministry, say there is no record of Caner's claims that he twice debated Muslim apologist Shabir Ally.
"The president of a large theological seminary has created a myth concerning his background that is incredibly self-contradictory," said White, who teaches on Islam at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.
White, who says he has engaged Ally in four formal public moderated debates, sounded the alarm for many Southern Baptists. In turn they have tracked down Caner's conference speeches, sermons, writings, and even court documents to counter the ex-Muslim's statements.
In February, Debbie Kaufman, an Enid, Oklahoma, Southern Baptist laywoman, began blogging about Caner on a daily basis, after watching videos posted by Khan and White. "This matters because we are to win people to Christ," says Kaufman.
Despite Liberty's support of Caner, it is unlikely interest will die down anytime soon. Just last week, Focus on the Family reran a 2001 broadcast of Caner's testimony that contained many of the disputed claims.
Meanwhile, bloggers say interest in the dispute is increasing. Gene Clyatt, a Southern Baptist pastor in Superior, Montana, normally has very light readership on his blog. When he first wrote about Caner on April 19, he saw his traffic spike to 1,500 pageviews. Clyatt says he is particularly bothered that Caner appeared to embellish his life story after the 2001 terrorist strikes. For instance, he cites a sermon at a Jacksonville, Florida, church in which Caner purported to have been trained as a jihadist until age 15.
"The president of a Christian seminary needs to be known for honesty," Clyatt says. "If followers of Christ are not truthful in everything, why should we be given any hearing when we present the gospel?"
Unveiling Islam details how Ergun's parents married in Sweden and the family moved to Ohio when he was a young boy. Emir, now the 39-year-old president of Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, Georgia, was born in Ohio. The book says the boys recited daily prayers, went to mosque each week, and read the Qur'an and Hadith regularly. "In every way, we were devout, serious Muslims," the book states.
"Since September 11, 2001, we have spoken nationwide in hundreds of assemblies, colleges, universities, churches, conventions, and conferences," the Caners wrote. After terrorist Osama bin Laden took credit for the 9/11 attacks, they said, "our lives, and the lives of our families, became a blur of media interviews, sermons, and lectures in packed auditoriums."
Critics say Caner has either been ambiguous or unresponsive to their requests for answers when they have pointed out discrepancies, and that exaggerated or untruthful remarks have been expunged from his sites. They say Caner must answer charges openly and publicly if the issue is to be resolved.
Neither Caner brother responded to interview requests from CT.
Towns, 77, believes opposition germinated when Caner accused SBC International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin of lying in a February podcast. Caner charged that "the IMB is teaching heresy" for using the "Camel Method" of evangelizing Muslims. He later expressed regret for the personal attack. Caner and other Camel Method critics believe this controversial method is deceptive and suggests that the Qur'an has credibility as God's sacred word.
"Ergun has publicly apologized for certain exaggerations and for letting his enthusiasm carry him away," Towns says. "He realizes now that his attack mentality is inappropriate." Towns didn't provide specifics of Caner's regrets other than the Rankin apology. Towns says Caner has been attacked so vociferously because of his position as an anti-Calvinist. Theological tension has grown in Southern Baptist circles in recent years as Calvinism has gained a greater following among Baptists.
Hussein Wario, a former Sunni Muslim from Kenya who converted to Christianity in 1989, is troubled that so many Baptists have been persuaded by Khan's videos. Wario, now based in Chicago and the author of Cracks in the Crescent, says Caner has written or co-authored 17 books without criticism, so it's odd that nitpicking about semantics has sparked such a firestorm.
Roy J. Oksnevad, director of Muslim Ministries at Wheaton College, hasn't met Caner, but says he has witnessed how Muslims—even nominal ones who knew little about the faith—are encouraged to tell their stories of conversion once they become Christian.
"The American church has created an atmosphere in which our itching ears are looking for anyone who can expose Islam at its worst," Oksnevad says. "There can be a lot of church pressure on ex-Muslims to talk very negatively."
On April 15, a reworked brief biography of Caner appeared on Liberty's website. While it still says he was "raised as a devout Sunni Muslim," an earlier statement that he had been "raised as the son of a Muslim leader in Turkey" has been deleted. Also gone is the remark that "Caner has debated Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and other religious leaders in 13 countries and 35 states."
Although bloggers say they aren't interested in forcing Caner out of his job, Clyatt notes that some bloggers are working on resolutions for the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in June that would call on churches to sever ties with Liberty if no action is taken against Caner. But in recent years, the SBC Committee on Resolutions has ruled as out of order nearly all efforts against individuals.
"We don't see any way that bloggers will damage Liberty," Towns says.
Editor's Note: This article has been revised to correct Mohammad Khan's comments, which concern the content of Ergun Caner's video comments, not Caner's pronunciation of Arabic.
John W. Kennedy is a CT contributing editor based in Springfield, Missouri.
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Christianity Today's previous articles on or related to Islam include:
Out of Context | Debate over 'Camel method' probes limits of Muslim-focused evangelism. (March 23, 2010)
Should Christians Fast During Ramadan With Muslims? | Church leaders and observers weigh in on a current debate. (October 26, 2009)
What's in a Name? | Christians in Southeast Asia debate their right to refer to God as Allah. (July 28, 2009)