Ergun Caner is one of the most prominent figures in the evangelical movement. He is also one of the most deceptive.
A self-professed Muslim convert to Christianity, Caner plays an important, and arguably dangerous, role in the community. After the 9/11 attacks, when many Americans were searching for answers, Caner stepped up with enthusiasm to present himself as an expert on Islam. He used his own "personal history" (much of it since demonstrated as bogus) to confirm his audience's deeply-held suspicions about the faith that many of them blamed for the attacks.
Today, as president of the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and a professor of apologetics, he exhibits tremendous influence in shaping the next generation of evangelical leaders.
A burly man with a charming smile, Caner is an eloquent speaker and an even better storyteller. He blends the Gospel with humor. He's a big fan of Glenn Beck and NASCAR. He speaks about love. He tweets. And, he is well-liked by his students. In the five years that he's been at Liberty, the school's enrollment has nearly tripled.
Caner is a protégé of Paige Patterson, the controversial and successful leader of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, who is perhaps best known for forcing the Southern Baptist Convention into the political right. Paterson spoke at the school's commencement this year.
By the time he came to Liberty University, a Baptist school in Lynchburg, Virginia founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, Caner had already become a prolific writer. He and his brother had written several books aimed at evangelical audiences. Many of the books recounted their paths to Christ. It's hard not to be moved by the narrative -- true or not.
Born in Turkey to a religious father, a muezzin (one who performs the call to prayer), Caner grew up detesting the United States and all it stood for. He learned bits and pieces about his future homeland from watching the Dukes of Hazzard. During his teenage years, his family immigrated to the United States. His father came here to spread the message of Islam and build mosques.
During his senior year in high school, his life changed. Caner found Christ. A friend, "a solitary Christian boy," refused to take no for an answer and insisted that Caner learn about Christianity. He invited him to his tiny store-front church where Caner talked to the pastor, a man with a sixth grade education who questioned him about his firmly-held convictions. Caner was amazed to discover the true teachings of a faith he had been trained his whole life to hate. He accepted Christianity, as did his two brothers, Emir and Erdem.
When he told his father, he was disowned. It was, he writes, a difficult experience for young Ergun, who didn't speak to his father for many years. In one of his books, he writes, "For the other 95 percent of the world's population, conversion to Jesus Christ often means disowning, disinheritance, expulsion, arrest, and even death." But he was resolute in his newfound faith and was willing to give it all up for eternal salvation. Caner and his younger brother Emir (president of Truett-McConnell College, a small Bible college in Cleveland, Georgia) became shining examples to evangelicals.
If a hardened and hidebound jihadist "trained to do that which was done on 11 September" could come around to accepting Christ, the logic went, it proved beyond doubt that the message of Christ was universal.
The main problem with Caner's journey from Jihad to Jesus is that much of it is fiction, a complex lie made up to give his conversion more authenticity. He fabricated almost everything. For someone who allegedly fought jihad, Caner's understanding of the very basic tenets of the faith he is a so-called expert in is rudimentary.
Caner does not know the difference between Islam's article of faith and the first chapter of the Qur'an. He's claimed that the lunar month of Ramadan lasts for 40 days. In his book, he writes that he performed all of the rakats (daily prayers). The actual word is salah. It's not a difference most people would know, but he says he is an expert on Islam. Muslims, he once said, followed something he called the "tobaad." He's claimed to have debated Muslim scholars who've never heard of him. Court records from his parent's divorce indicate that he was in Ohio when he was a young child, long before his alleged move from Turkey. On his books, his middle name is Mehmet (Muhammad in Turkish), yet it is listed as Michael on his concealed-weapons permit in Virginia. Before 9/11, he went by E. Michael Caner.
In one speech, Caner told a crowd that outside the mosque in Kabul there was a sign that read, "Do not teach the women to read and write." The story may or may not be true, but Caner, to give authority to the tale, told the crowd what was written in the native tongue: "bahasha uwtara muwtara seeteeroh." That's neither Dari nor Arabic nor Urdu nor Turkish nor Pashtu. It is an entirely made up language.
To his audience, Caner's tale of moving from darkness to light reaffirmed their convictions about the superiority of Christianity and the decadence of Islam. But the facts eventually caught up with Caner, thanks to a Muslim student in London who methodically went through his speeches and interviews, chronicling each and every one of his lies. Others quickly piled on, including some within the church.
Ironically, in 2005, Caner came to the defense of Florida-based preacher Jerry Vines who angered the Muslim community with his demonization of the Prophet Muhammad. A piece in the Florida Times-Union quoted Caner, who defended Vines by saying, "No one expected a Baptist preacher to actually research."
That's precisely why Caner's duplicitous persona went unchallenged for so long. No one expected a preacher to so boldly fabricate his entire background. It was all a ruse, intended to play off the evangelical movement's ignorance and fear of Islam.
For months, Liberty University refused to investigate Caner's background. Now that local press and even the Associated Press have written about the controversy, the school has set up a committee to investigate the allegations. If they excuse his behavior, they risk tarnishing their credibility. If they punish him, they risk provoking the anger of the evangelical community.
An unrepentant Caner maintains his innocence, saying that he "never intentionally misled anyone." He blames the campaign to discredit him on Calvinists and their Muslim interlocutors. At the same time, many of his duped followers are refusing to accept reality. They are taking their anger out on those who have exposed the fraud and not on the charlatan himself.