By William Wan and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; B01
LYNCHBURG -- At an evangelical institution such as Liberty University, personal testimonies are a kind of sacred currency; how Jesus saved you from damnation often defines you as a person. Nobody had a story quite as dramatic as that of Ergun Caner, dean of Liberty's seminary.
As he told it to church audiences across the country, Caner was entrenched in Muslim extremism when he moved to the United States from Turkey as a teenager and found Jesus. He wrote books and, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, developed a reputation for his impassioned speeches on Muslim radicalism to largely evangelical audiences. Liberty founder Jerry Falwell Sr. chose Caner -- a bold man with a big shaved head, double-barrel chest and the personality to match -- in 2005 to be the face of his seminary. Under Caner, the seminary tripled its enrollment.
But now, few want to talk about Caner. Mention his name, and seminary staff turn cold. University leaders politely shake their heads and show you the door. Even students hesitate to talk.
"I'd rather not add any fuel to the fire," one student said.
The biography of Caner, 43, has become shrouded in doubt after apparent exaggerations were brought to light by an unusual alliance of Muslim and Christian bloggers. They have pored through his sermons, books, speeches and court documents, finding contradictions in his narrative. His expertise on Islam and his claim to having been raised as a radical Sunni Muslim in Turkey have been questioned.
Wednesday is Caner's last day as dean; Liberty announced he was being removed because of "factual statements that are self-contradictory." Although he will no longer be dean, Caner will continue as a professor. Critics say the school's explanation falls short.
"They haven't come clean and explained what exactly they investigated and found," said James White, director of Alpha and Omega Ministries in Phoenix, who dug into Caner's past. "One can only offer forgiveness if there's repentance, and they've basically said nothing with their statement."
Student opinion is divided. Some have created Facebook groups in Caner's defense. Others have expressed frustration with the university's carefully worded statements. Many describe the scandal in spiritual terms of truth, integrity, forgiveness and redemption.
Student Chris Gleason, 28, has decided to transfer to another seminary in part because of the controversy over Caner.
But despite feeling betrayed by Caner, Gleason said he's relieved the university didn't fire him. "There needs to be room for grace," he said.
When Caner was appointed seminary dean five years ago, his selection was seen as daring. Although not a prominent theologian, his charisma and dramatic conversion story made him an overnight star. He was booked years in advance on a circuit of evangelical churches and schools, and his books sold well after the Sept. 11 attacks as many evangelicals sought to learn more about Muslims.
White came across Caner's name last year when he read that the dean said he had debated dozens of religious scholars, including Shabir Ally, president of the Islamic Information and Dawah Centre International in Toronto. White had debated Ally in the past and sent him an e-mail. Never met Caner before, Ally replied.
In London, college student and blogger Mohammad Khan also began looking into Caner's past after watching sermons he thought showed odd blunders in Caner's knowledge of Islam.
Soon Khan, White and other bloggers began e-mailing and sharing suspicious errors and contradictions they found in Caner's videos and online writings.
In some accounts, Caner said he grew up in Turkey in a climate of "Islamic jihad." In recorded sermons, he talked about coming to the United States as a teenager and converting to Christianity. In one sermon, he put it more bluntly, saying he was trained to do what the Sept. 11 terrorists had done.
Yet, in a book he co-wrote with his younger brother, "Unveiling Islam: An Insider's Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs," he said their parents wed in Sweden and the family moved to Ohio when Ergun was a young boy, an account he also has provided publicly.
Indeed, bloggers found his parents' divorce records showing the family moved to Ohio in 1970, when Caner was 3 or 4, contradicting his account of teenage years on the cusp of Muslim extremism in Turkey. Bloggers also pointed to suspicious mistakes an Islamic expert was unlikely to make and timelines that did not match up.
For months, Liberty officials largely ignored the accusations, although Caner and others removed some online videos, alleging copyright infringement. Caner revised his résumé and removed references to having debated "Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and other religious leaders in 13 countries and 35 states" after bloggers asked for specifics.
But after the dispute made its way into Christianity Today and other news outlets this spring, Liberty's chancellor and Falwell's son, Jerry Falwell Jr., convened a committee to look into the accusations.
Late Friday, Liberty released its conclusions in a one-paragraph statement saying that the four trustees had reviewed Caner's public statements and found "discrepancies related to matters such as dates, names and places of residence." School officials have since declined to comment further. Caner has not returned calls or e-mails, and no one answered the door at his large two-story home on the outskirts of Lynchburg.
Caner's last public statement appears to have been on his Web site in February. Since removed, the statement said he had "never intentionally misled anyone. . . . For those times where I misspoke, said it wrong, scrambled words, or was just outright confusing, I apologize and will strive to do better."
Those who have supported Caner in the past have largely disappeared. Prominent evangelicals Richard Land and Paige Patterson -- leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention who once trumpeted Caner's brand -- declined to comment. And experts on U.S. Muslim-Christian relations worry that Caner's rise, and the school's decision to retain him as a professor, reflects a negative, even hostile, attitude toward Muslims.
Meanwhile, students who once looked up to Caner are struggling with his legacy.
Dilek Kohler, a 2009 graduate, said she has chosen to focus on Caner's teaching and its effect on her life. Kohler said Caner counseled and supported her during a pregnancy out of wedlock. Although Kohler was ashamed, Caner, she said, "spoke of our common background, of the day we first met, of how he was proud to know me and how he knew I would use this opportunity for good for the future."
Now, Kohler said, the least she can do is extend him the same grace.