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Skeptics challenge life stories offered by high-profile Muslim converts to Christianity

By Omar Sacirbey
Saturday, June 26, 2010; B02

Liberty University is expected to release a report next week on whether Ergun Caner, president of the school's Baptist Theological Seminary, fabricated or exaggerated his account of being a former Muslim extremist rescued by Jesus.

Caner is no ordinary ex-Muslim. His story has made him a favorite in conservative Christian circles, and many credit the charismatic preacher with helping boost enrollment at the school founded by the late Jerry Falwell.

At the same time, some critics say Caner is just the latest charlatan in a line of supposedly ex-Muslim terrorists who have found an audience among Christian fundamentalists seeking to attack Islam.

Most worrisome, the critics say, is that the self-styled former terrorists have been welcomed as experts on Islam and terrorism by religious institutions, universities, media outlets, members of Congress and even the military.

"These guys are to real terrorists what a squirt gun is to an AK-47," said Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who brought claims of religious discrimination against the U.S. Air Force Academy. "But this is not a joke. This is a national security threat," he said

Caner, 43, has said that he was raised as a Muslim extremist in Turkey but that he converted to Christianity after moving to Ohio as a teenager in 1978. "Until I was 15 years old, I was in the Islamic youth jihad," he said in a November 2001 sermon at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla. "I was trained to do that which was done on 11 September, as were thousands of youth." In 2002, he wrote "Inside Islam: An Insider's Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs," with his brother Emir, president of Truett-McConnell College, a Baptist school in Cleveland, Ga.

In recent months, however, skeptical bloggers, such as London-based Mohammad Khan of FakeExMuslims.com, and Oklahoma-based Debbie Kaufman of the Ministry of Reconciliation blog, began unearthing documents and statements by Caner contradicting his claims.

The Caner brothers' book, for example, states they were born in Sweden, not Turkey, and spent most of their time with their non-Muslim mother, not their Muslim father, after the parents divorced in the United States. Records indicate that the family arrived in the United States in 1974, four years earlier than Ergun Caner has claimed.

Caner and Liberty officials have declined to comment. Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr., in a May 10 statement, said only that "in light of the fact that several newspapers have raised questions, we felt it necessary to initiate a formal inquiry."

Other avowed terrorists-turned-Christians have drawn scrutiny as well, including U.S. citizens Walid Shoebat, author of "Why We Want To Kill You," and Kamal Saleem, who has worked for Focus on the Family and recently wrote "The Blood of Lambs." Like Caner's book, their books purport to be insider explorations of radical Islam.

Shoebat, who has called Islam "the devil," says he was recruited by the Palestine Liberation Organization as a teenager. In 1977, he has said, he threw a bomb on the roof of the Bethlehem branch of an Israeli bank.

The bank, however, has no record of the incident, and it was never reported by Israeli news outlets.

When asked by the Jerusalem Post in 2008 why there were no records, Shoebat surmised that the incident was not serious enough to merit news coverage. Yet four years earlier, he told Britain's Sunday Telegraph: "I was terribly relieved when I heard on the news later that evening that no one had been hurt or killed by my bomb."

On his Web site, Saleem says he carried out terror missions in Israel, fought with Afghan mujaheddin against the Soviets, and came to the United States hoping to wage jihad against America. He also said once that he was descended from the "grand wazir of Islam," until skeptics pointed out that it was a nonsensical term, akin to calling someone the "governor of Christianity."

Skeptics also point out that Shoebat and Saleem say they carried out terrorist activities in the 1960s and 1970s, long before modern Islamic radicalism emerged in the 1980s. They also ask why, if their stories are true, the two have been able to retain their U.S. citizenship.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Caner, Shoebat, Saleem and others like them belong to an "industry" that is often perpetuated by fundamentalist Christians.

"The people that are doing this do it to make money or get converts or to get some personal benefit," Hooper said.

Muslims and non-Muslims alike are troubled that these avowed former terrorists have been welcomed as experts. They have appeared on CNN and Fox News and spoken at Harvard Law School. In 2008, they were speakers at a terrorism conference sponsored by the Air Force Academy, the findings of which were to be distributed at the Pentagon and Capitol Hill.

With the United States engaged in combat in the heart of the Islamic world, Weinstein said, Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. military are promoting terrorists-turned-Christians, with potentially deadly consequences.

''These guys are spewing Islamophobic hatred, and the Pentagon laps it up. This is the kind of prejudice and bigotry that can lead to genocide," Weinstein said.

-- Religion News Service

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