Lying in Christ’s Name: Part Two
During the past decade, a small group of evangelical Christians claiming to be “ex-Muslim extremists” have entered the public discourse on Islam. They have written books, given speeches to law enforcement and military personnel, and appeared in the media. Unfortunately, their narratives contain serious discrepancies and several outright falsehoods. It cannot be known whether their deception is based on ideological motives, monetary reasons (these men have earned substantial amounts of money, including taxpayer funds, to tell their tales), or a combination of the two. Either way, their narratives do nothing to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In this article, I will discuss this group of men (Walid Shoebat, Kamal Saleem, Ergun and Emir Caner) and the problems with their stories. It should be noted first that nothing in this article is meant to distract us from the real problem of Christian persecution from extremist groups including ISIS and al-Qaeda, among others. Nor is it meant to write off the many serious problems (apostasy laws or the lack of political freedoms for women and religious minorities) in places like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or Iran. Those are real issues that must be addressed and are being raised by many Muslims in those places on a daily basis.
(Before continuing I would like to take a moment and ask for readers to stop and pray for the family of Ergun Caner, one of those “ex-Muslim extremists” I discuss here. Ergun’s son Braxton took his own life in late July of this year. God be with Braxton, Ergun, and the entire Caner family as they continue to mourn their loss.)
I will begin with Kamal Saleem, whose alleged biography is so outrageous that a columnist for the Kansas City Star dubbed him the “Forrest Gump of the Middle East.”1 His personal website provides the following outline of his life:
“Born in 1957 into a large Sunni Lebanese family…Kamal Saleem was breastfed Islamic radicalism by his mother, and taught to hate Jews and Christians by his father. Recruited by the Muslim Brotherhood…he completed his first bloody terror mission into Israel for the Palestinian Liberation Organization [PLO] at age 7. Kamal ran important terror operations as a young man in the service of Yassir Arafat…He has worked for, and dined with, Muhamar Kaddafi (Libya). He has “carried the ball” for Baath Party leaders and…Saddam Hussein and Hafez al Assad (dictator of Syria), for Saudi Arabian sheikhs and princes, and for Abdul Rahman (Muslim Brotherhood). Kamal Saleem fought with the Afghan Mujahadeen for victory against the Soviets…before he and his patrons turned their attention to the destruction of the West – and Western freedoms – through Islamicization. Above all, Kamal thirsted for jihadic death to America.”2
The sensationalization of this bio is readily apparent. Saleem’s story reads like a cheesy 1980s film. The first major problem is his contradicting claims about the age at which he became a terrorist. He claims to have carried out his first terror mission for the PLO at age seven. Since Saleem was born in 1957, this would have been sometime around 1964, yet the PLO was only founded in 1964, making this very unlikely as it is difficult to find evidence of the PLO using children that early in their existence.
On a bible prophecy TV program, Saleem claimed that he was recruited into the Muslim Brotherhood when he was five years old, yet in his own book, The Blood of Lambs, he writes that he was recruited at age seven.3 To make matters worse, the back cover of the book states that Saleem “went on his first mission, smuggling weapons into Israel as a child soldier for Yasser Arafat.” The main problem here is that the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood, a group based in fundamentalist Islam, and the Palestinian-based PLO, a secular nationalist organization, are opposed to each other meaning he could not have possibly worked for both at the same time or been involved in a collaborative effort between the two. Thus, Saleem contradicts himself by naming two different groups that gave him his start.
Another strange aspect of his story is the vast array of organizations and causes he claims to have worked for (including Qaddafi, the Ba’ath Parties in Iraq and Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood, the PLO, and the mujahedeen in Afghanistan); groups with very different goals and groups that are often deeply hostile to each other. One of the most humorous claims made by Saleem was that he is a descendant of the “grand wazir of Islam.” This was until it was pointed out that no such thing existed and that it was similar to calling someone the “governor of Christianity.”4
In The Blood of Lambs, Saleem states that his mother taught him that “even the most sinful man is able to redeem himself with one drop of an infidel’s blood” and that “the more infidels we killed, the better our chances to move quickly from punishment to paradise.”5 Saleem wants his reader to believe that the basis for salvation in Islam is killing non-Muslims, a strange idea for which he provides no Islamic sources as evidence. Saleem also attributes the goals of violent fundamentalist Muslim groups to all of Islam and follows the common tactic of claiming that these goals represent the “true and authentic” teachings of Islam and that any Muslim that does not adhere to these tenets are simply “liberal” or not “real” Muslims.
It was later uncovered that Saleem’s real name is Khodor Shami and that he worked for Pat Robertson’s CBN for 16 years and has been working for James Dobson’s Focus on the Family since 2003.6 This would mean that he began working for CBN sometime around 1987, a fact conveniently missing from the section of his book titled “America 1985-1991.” While it is certainly not clear when Shami immigrated to America, when he converted to Christianity if he was truly a Muslim, or if he was simply raised Christian (his birth-country Lebanon has a sizeable Christian population), the blatant falsehoods and propaganda he deploys is readily apparent.
Another prominent “ex-Muslim extremist” is Ergun Caner. Ergun and his brother Emir have never lived in a Muslim-majority country, despite telling public audiences that they were raised in Turkey and indoctrinated in “radical Islam”; a story they told evangelical audiences until 2010.7 In their book, Unveiling Islam, they write that Ergun was born in Sweden while Emir was born in Ohio after the family moved to America.8 The profile for Emir Caner on the website for Truett-McConnell College, where he has served as president since 2008, says that Emir was born in 1970. One YouTube video documents the various dates that Ergun has given for his arrival, which contradicts naturalization paperwork for his father which shows that Ergun entered the US directly from Sweden in 1969.9 Thus, Ergun was telling audiences he did not come to America until the late 1970s because it made his false-narrative more plausible. He and his brother were raised in America and attended secular-public schools.
After 9/11, the brothers realized that they could make a lucrative career by altering their own biography and claiming they were raised in an extremist Muslim environment. They have published several books about Islam and have given speeches at universities, churches, and in front of law enforcement and military personnel. Their popularity in evangelical circles helped propel Ergun to the position of dean at the Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary in 2005, a job he held until 2010 when his fraudulent story began to crumble under further scrutiny.
James White, director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, is responsible for helping to expose Ergun’s fraudulent persona. White worked with a native speaker of Arabic to examine the speeches of Ergun and found that many of the supposed Arabic phrase uttered during his talks were simply gibberish.10 This revelation along with other discrepancies in his story led to his firing from Liberty University in 2010. The websites of these men no longer tell tales of former Muslim radicalism or of being raised in Turkey, only mentioning that they converted to Christianity as teenagers and were called to the ministry shortly thereafter.
Walid Shoebat is by far the most extreme and well-known of this group. The rhetoric found in his books is nothing short of the far-right vitriol synonymous with the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage. In his writings, he vehemently attacks secularism, environmentalism, “political correctness,” along with every other pet peeve of far right-wing politics.
According to Shoebat’s website, he spent three years in an Israeli prison during the 1970s for his extremist activities, and while in jail he was recruited to bomb a bank in Bethlehem. According to a Jerusalem Post article, he claims that he had a change of heart after seeing children near the bank he was recruited to bomb, so he threw the bomb onto the roof instead. However, no records can be found of any bombing at the bank Shoebat claimed to have attacked. According to an investigative report conducted for CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, the Israeli government has no prison record under the name Walid Shoebat at all (If anyone had a vested interest in corroborating Shoebat’s story, it would be the Israeli government). In addition, several of Shoebat’s relatives have been located and all of them state that Shoebat’s education was moderate, that religion was not a major part of his upbringing, and that there was no bank bombing at all.11 Shoebat’s story has changed several times contradicting himself in the process. When confronted about the lack of evidence about the bank bombing by the Jerusalem Post in 2008, he claimed it was not newsworthy at the time, but in 2004 Shoebat told the 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.”12
Shoebat’s biography on his website is now very vague on details, probably to avoid giving too much information which could be used to prove his story is false. That same CNN report details the healthy sum that Shoebat makes for giving speeches and writing books. According to tax records, Shoebat made over $500,000 in 2009. He was also paid five thousand for an appearance sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security.13
In Shoebat’s book Why I Left Jihad, he attempts to discredit liberal/progressive and mainstream Muslims stating:
“There are Muslims who reject many of the classical sources and truly focus on the peaceful verses of the Qur’an, seeking to reinterpret the verses because they truly do not want to engage in violence. These “liberal” Muslims seem to “re-write” Islam rather than correctly interpret it. They are peaceful despite Islam, not because of it.”14
Here again, like so many other Christian commentators opining about Islam, Shoebat attempts to define Islam in favor of Muslim fundamentalists and extremists. A common tactic in this regard is to appeal to the doctrine of abrogation, or naskh, which some Muslim interpreters use to argue that the violent and militant qur’anic verses of the Medinan period of Muhammad’s life cancel out the earlier, more peaceful and pluralistic verses of the Meccan period. This concept is deeply controversial and disputed, which is a topic I write about here. There are simply no established or agreed upon criteria for deciding which verses are abrogating (nasikh) and which are abrogated (mansukh).15 Overall, Shoebat’s books are very poorly written and highly disorganized, but since both were self-published by Shoebat, there were no publishing or editorial standards to be met.
None of the men discussed in this article have provided any credible evidence of their upbringing in “radical Islam” and their stories are so problematic that none of them should be trusted on the subject of Islam or terrorism. The rhetoric promoted by Saleem, Shoebat, and the Caner brothers does nothing to adequately address the problems of religious extremism or terrorism in a constructive way and their primary purpose, like the Barbary captivity narratives discussed in Part One, is to attack Islam and to elevate their particular interpretation of Christianity above all others. The narratives promoted by these men do nothing to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ and bring peace and healing to this world.
As Christians, we must work with those allies in Muslim societies seeking to fight the forces of intolerance and violence. We must also reject those promoting false narratives or distortions in order to sell a book or advance a particular ideology. Wearing the gospel on our sleeves and living in Christ do far more to expand Christianity than scare tactics and propaganda. Dividing the world with “us vs. them” dualisms or “clash of civilizations” hypotheses is the antithesis of what Jesus would do.
1 Tim Murphy, “I was a Terrorist…Seriously!” Mother Jones, March/April 2012.
2 See the website of Kamal Saleem at <http://www.kamalsaleem.com/>. This webpage has been reformatted and edited since my initial research.
3 Kamal Saleem, The Blood of Lambs: A Former Terrorist’s Memoir of Death and Redemption (New York: Howard Books, 2009), 2.
3 Omar Sacirbey, “Skeptics challenge life stories offered by high-profile Muslim converts to Christianity,” Washington Post, June 26, 2010.
4 Saleem, The Blood of Lambs, 11 and 22.
5 Reza Aslan, “Apparently, terrorism pays. It pays very well.” Anderson Cooper 360 CNN blog, February 27, 2008.
6 William Wan and Michelle Boorstein, “Liberty U. removing Ergun Caner as seminary dean over contradictory statements,” The Washington Post, June 30, 2010.
7 Ergun Caner and Emir Caner, Unveiling Islam: An Insider’s Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2002), 17.
10 Jorg Luyken, “The Palestinian ‘terrorist’ turned Zionist,” The Jerusalem Post, June 6, 2012.
11 Sacirbey, “Skeptics challenge life stories offered by high-profile Muslim converts to Christianity.”
12 Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston, “Ex-terrorist rakes in homeland security bucks,” CNN (July 13, 2011).
13 Walid Shoebat, Why I Left Jihad (self-published), 36.
14 See Louay Fatoohi, Abrogation in the Qur’an and Islamic Law: A Critical Study of the Concept of “Naskh” and its Impact (New York: Routledge, 2013); John Burton, The Sources of Islamic Law: Islamic Theories of Abrogation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990); Anna M. Gade, The Qur’an: An Introduction (New York: Oneworld, 2010), 138; and Ingrid Mattson, The Story of the Qur’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 203.
(Photo courtesy of Jennifer M. Smith)