When the Rev. Jerry Vines got up in front of a sea of Southern Baptist pastors last month and described the Prophet Muhammad as a “demon-possessed pedophile,” many people thought it was an ill-informed slip of the tongue.
Ergun and Emir Caner, the authors of a new book on Islam, knew it was not. The two brothers, Muslim converts to Christianity, had been working hard to win over leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention--including former Southern Baptist Convention President Vines--to their views about Islam.
Now Vines’ remarks have given their work a nationwide audience. It’s no surprise that after the media broke the story, the brothers were available to back up Vines’ comments at a quickly arranged news conference in St. Louis’ America’s Center, where Baptists held their annual meeting.
These days, the brothers, who are 31 and 35, have been booked solid for church appearances and are making the rounds among Christian radio and TV outlets. They are touting their book, “Unveiling Islam: An Insider’s Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs,” and are trying to convince 16 million Southern Baptists who make up the country’s largest Protestant denomination that their worst fears about Islam and its founder are true.
“We wanted to give an open, honest assessment of Islam, which we didn’t see in the mainstream media,” said Emir Caner, a professor of church history and Anabaptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. That assessment, the brothers say, leads to two conclusions: Islam is violent, and its prophet was an unscrupulous warmonger.
In their book, the Caners emphasize Muhammad’s third marriage to Aisha, a 6-year-old girl. It is said the prophet had sex with her when she was 9. They also question Muhammad’s initial bewilderment at God’s revelations, which he once compared in their intensity to demon possession.
The Caners’ book has sold 30,000 copies since March, according to Kregel, a Christian book publishing firm in Grand Rapids, Mich. The paperback features a glowing foreword by Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. It also carries praise from other Southern Baptist leaders, including Paige Patterson, president of the Southeastern seminary, who wrote a blurb saying the book provided him with “the most enlightening insights into the world of Islam that I have read anywhere.”
Muslims have been equally vocal about the book and Vines’ comment, calling it bigoted, hate-filled and medieval. To Muslims, Muhammad represents the highest standards of ethics and morals.
“It feeds into a cycle of Islamophobia,” said Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University. “The more you trash Islam, the more it sells.”
Vines’ statement has also been criticized by the Interfaith Alliance, the National Council of Churches and the Anti-Defamation League. President Bush, who spoke by satellite to Southern Baptists on the opening day of their meeting in St. Louis, was unaware of Vines’ comment, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, adding: “The president believes Islam is a religion that teaches peace.”
The Caners are convinced otherwise. As boys growing up in Ohio, the two converted to Christianity after being invited to a Baptist church in their neighborhood when they were teenagers. Their conversion cost them the love of their father, who disowned them for more than a decade.
Emir Caner said the break came at dinner one day when he was 12 years old. “I told him I could not pray to Allah anymore. I found Jesus Christ as my savior,” Caner recalled. “He said, ‘You either choose between me or your religion.’ ”
Acar Mehmet Caner reconciled with his sons before he died in 1999.
The brothers attended Criswell College, where they met Patterson, a man they refer to as a surrogate father. They followed him to Southeastern seminary, where they earned master’s degrees. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Patterson encouraged them to write the book, and he read the draft before it went to the publisher.
“I think that because of the fact that our government, for necessary reasons, has had to go lightly on Islam, the American people need to know who the prophet is and what is recorded in the Koran and Hadith,” Patterson said.
The Caners believe that to convert a Muslim, Christians must know what Muslims believe.
“We maintain Muslims must be confronted with the character and claims of Muhammad,” said Emir Caner. “If he was an excellent example, perhaps he should be followed. But if he is a man who slept with a 9-year-old girl, which in any culture is wrong, perhaps he isn’t to be followed.”
Islamic scholars say that although no Muslim would sanction the practice today, it was not unusual in the Middle East of the 7th century for men to marry girls. The practice still exists in parts of Africa.
They say an early betrothal is different from pedophilia, which is a pathological deviancy.
“Many Christians have never been able to get over the fact that Muhammad was a lover and a great husband and father,” said Carl W. Ernst, a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert in Islam.
Ernst said attempts to discredit Muhammad date to the 18th century, when missionaries and Asian scholars, known as Orientalists, turned every Muslim virtue into a vice.
He and other scholars say picking faults with any religious tradition can quickly get ugly. What about Moses, who killed another man; David, who committed adultery; or the Apostle Paul, who accepted slavery as a natural part of the social order?
“All our religions are tainted,” said Bill Leonard, dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem and an expert in Baptist church history. “We have to wear our claims with great humility.”
The Caners reject that argument. They say they wrote the book to remind Baptists that all religions are not equal and that Christianity is the one true faith.
“My goal is to reach 1.3 billion Muslims with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” said Emir Caner. “Even if only one Muslim converts, it’s worth it.”