Tea Party and the Right  
comments_image Comments

Liberty University Dean Demoted After AlterNet Investigation

Ergun Caner, dean of a religious right seminary, claimed to be a former jihadist whose heart was changed by Jesus. But he never was, and now he's no longer dean.

Editor's Note: Help AlterNet keep our reporters in the field, digging and keeping tabs. Field investigations cost money to travel and cover the maneuverings of the mobile and growing Tea Party movement, and other right-wing movements. To make sure we can pay for our investigations, we immediately need $30,000 to pay the bills and keep our people on watch in the field. This project will operate at a high-intensity pitch through the fall election. Help us out, please.

In the wake of an AlterNet exposé, Ergun Caner, president and dean of the theological seminary at Liberty University, was stripped of his leadership positions at the conservative Christian school founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Caner, a Baptist clergyman of Turkish descent, claimed for years to have been a fervent jihadist until Jesus changed his heart. He said he was raised in Turkey, attended a madrassa, and didn’t speak English until he was a teenager. His story won him fame on the Christian conservative speaking circuit and led to his appointment as dean.

In May, AlterNet reported that Caner had lied about his past in order to exploit popular sentiment after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Caner became a star on the evangelical circuit when he began regaling audiences with stories of growing up in Turkey and being trained to wage violent jihad against America. His "jihad to Jesus" story and his claims to be an expert on violent Islam ("Jesus strapped a cross on his back so I wouldn't have to strap a bomb on mine") brought him a national audience and eventually led him to Liberty University’s seminary. During his tenure, enrollment soared.

But a group of Muslim and Christian bloggers and others (including Right Wing Watch, for which I write) documented serious discrepancies with known facts about his life story in claims made by Caner in sermons and other speaking appearances. It turns out that he didn’t grow up in Turkey, but in Ohio. Those stories about learning about the U.S. by watching American sitcoms in his Turkish living room, or struggling to learn English after coming to the states as a teenager? Not true.

When Christian media reported on the discrepancies highlighted by the bloggers, Liberty defended Caner, dismissing the allegations and the bloggers who made them. (Evangelist John Ankerberg and Liberty even lodged copyright complaints with YouTube over the posting of Caner’s sermons by Muslim blogger Mohammed Khan of Fake Ex Muslims, which led to the suspension of Khan’s YouTube account.) Only after AlterNet’s investigation was published did Liberty University officials take action on its embattled dean. Within hours of AlterNet’s publication of its story on Caner, university officials backtracked and announced that Liberty would conduct an internal investigation.

In a statement published on the Liberty University Web site, Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr., said that Liberty had taken no action until that time because the university "does not initiate personnel evaluations based upon accusations from Internet blogs," he wrote, referring to the Baptist and Muslim blogs that had been questioning Caner’s story. "However," Falwell continued, "in light of the fact that several newspapers have raised questions, we felt it necessary to initiate a formal inquiry."

The inquiry now completed, Caner has been demoted -- stripped of his titles as dean and president of the theological seminary -- but he remains on faculty with a one-year contract for the 2010-2011 academic term. A statement issued by the university reads, in part:

After a thorough and exhaustive review of Dr. Ergun Caner's public statements, a committee consisting of four members of Liberty University’s Board of Trustees has concluded that Dr. Caner has made factual statements that are self-contradictory. However, the committee found no evidence to suggest that Dr. Caner was not a Muslim who converted to Christianity as a teenager, but, instead, found discrepancies related to matters such as dates, names and places of residence.

Some Caner supporters called on Liberty to defend him, suggesting that "embellishing" on behalf of a good story is a long tradition among preachers. But in the digital age, when sermons and speeches live forever via YouTube, it was simply not possible to credibly dismiss the allegations.