Churches as Hospitals of Deradicalization

Would you visit a neighborhood that’s home to a leading terrorist?

Scott Gustafson unintentionally did that in 2002 as a nonprofit worker in Jordan.

In an interview with Light + Life, he explained that he and his wife raised support in 2001 before the Sept. 11 attacks, but their “journey into the Middle East began with the attacks in New York and the subsequent war on terror that monopolized everybody’s attention for the next two decades. Early on in our time in Jordan, a guy that we met there when we were learning Arabic became a Christian.”

Gustafson said that he visited the home of the Christian man who then revealed that his neighbor was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a notorious jihadist from Jordan who ran a training camp for terrorists in Afghanistan. Al-Zarqawi later led al-Qaeda in Iraq before being killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006. CNN calls him the “the unlikely godfather of the Islamic State” (also known as ISIS).

Gustafson said that when he approached the Christian convert’s home and “knocked on the door, his brother and father opened the door — sheiks at the mosque with big, long beards.” People in the Middle East are “absolutely known for their hospitality and are very generous, loving, overabundant gracious people when it comes to welcoming you into their homes.” These men, however, “did not want me to come in their house, and I had this sinking feeling like ‘What have I done?’ They were nothing but gruff.”

The new Christian “became really embarrassed at that point, walked with me down the street to find a taxi back home, and apologized,” recalled Gustafson, who replied to his friend that he probably would not have visited the neighborhood if he knew it was al-Zarqawi’s home turf.

But Gustafson’s curiosity was piqued, and he wondered, “Why would somebody from that kind of background want to follow Christ and what led to choosing a much different path than his family?

The visit to the Christian convert’s home in al-Zarqawi’s neighborhood is one of many experiences that resulted in Gustafson’s interest in deradicalization and the spiritual transformation of former extremists. In 2012, he moved back to the United States and began working with a foundation giving grants for humanitarian aid in the Middle East.

“I started hearing these stories from partners. I was working with 50 or 60 different NGOs and churches and meeting these people on my trips,” said Gustafson who added that he met people with “extreme backgrounds — Hezbollah, ISIS and al-Qaeda — who had converted and are now refugees or serving in the crisis themselves with churches’ organizations, some of them preaching on a regular basis, some of them leading Bible studies.”

He became even more fascinated about what led to this transformation.

“When I had the opportunity to study at an academic level, I just took the chance,” he said. “It was of course an academic pursuit, but much more of a curiosity of cataloging these stories. … I felt this obligation — like a sacred duty — to tell these stories because it didn’t seem to me that anyone else was capturing them.”

Gustafson is now the managing partner of Purpose Global Strategies and a leading expert in the deradicalization of Islamic extremists. He writes scholarly articles such as “Moving Toward the Enemy: A Case for Missiological Engagement in Counter/Deradicalization” for the Journal for Deradicalization, and he is interviewed on podcasts and quoted in publications such as Christianity Today. He received a master’s degree in intercultural/Middle East studies from Moody Graduate School and recently earned a doctorate from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam’s Extreme Beliefs program.

Surprising Kindness and Mutual Transformation

Gustafson decided to get the perspectives of both the deradicalized converts and the Christians who connected with them.

“The extremists, many times, are meeting Christians for the first time and are not sure what’s going on,” said Gustafson, who noted these extremists began “a journey of discovery that things are not as they were told, and then the Christians had the same kind of discovery like, ‘Oh, these are extremists. Yes, they fought in the war, but now they’re here, and they have families, needs and desires just like we do.’”

He discovered that the pathway to deradicalization “starts with surprising kindness.”

“Extremists have these assumptions of who Christians were — that they drank blood, ate flesh, participated in witchcraft, were sexually immoral and all of these things they’ve been told, but they found Christians very welcoming and kind,” he said. “One extremist tells a story of how a pastor he was plotting to kill brought him food because he saw the man was poor and living in a stairwell, and that just broke his heart. He realized, ‘Well, I’ve had these people wrong all this time.’”

Mutual transformation also occurred. Many Christians “were very hardened toward the Syrians. They considered them as enemies.” But then the Christians “had their hearts broken as they saw the need and saw people starting to come to faith.” They realized, “These are my neighbors. These are people God loves, and God is rescuing and appearing to them in dreams and visions.”

Pastors and nongovernmental organization workers repented of their attitudes toward Muslims, and the extremists responded with “the repentance of faith and then also repenting of their actions of violence and hostility in the past and their presuppositions about these whole groups of people that they had never met.”

A common theme in research about terrorism is mutual radicalization.

“When a group like al-Qaeda has all this rhetoric and demonizes Christian evangelicals, then the Christian evangelicals get upset and demonize the Muslim immigrants, and the two play off of each other,” said Gustafson, whose research revealed that mutual confession and transformation “happened when both parties started to realize that ‘God was at work in our midst’ and started having the same conversion experiences — Muslims converting to Christianity and clergy converting to this kingdom orientation that there’s something big going on here.”

Supernatural Experiences

Gustafson also found that “83% of those I interviewed had supernatural experiences: dreams, visions, repeated appearances of Jesus speaking to them.” This was a higher rate than the 40 to 60% of supernatural experiences reported among Muslim converts to Christianity in other studies. He believes the higher rate may be because he focused specifically on extremists, and “God has worked in this population more in a supernatural way because they were so unreached and maybe would not have responded otherwise.”

The supernatural experiences seemed real to the extremists. Some of these experiences happened before conversion and others happened afterward.

“One guy said he saw Jesus and felt His touch on his shoulder, and he got up and searched behind the curtains because he was so convinced that Jesus was physically present in the room,” Gustafson said.

Some of the experiences offered comfort to new converts. They reported hearing comforting words from Jesus as they fled war for safety in Northern Iraq, Jordan or Lebanon.

Help and Hospitality

Other commonalities were found where multiple Islamic extremists became Christians.

“Food, hospitality, welcome and belonging, those are all big ingredients to the churches that saw lots of conversions and grew exponentially,” he said. “One of the churches is 80% Muslim background; 10 or 15% of those are extremists.”

The converts’ primary identity became belonging to the family of God. He said the church is “who they consider their family, not their biological family because that family has rejected them.”

These Middle Eastern churches have opened their doors to people who were not like the church members and who previously were considered their enemies. American Christians may say that sounds like an obvious approach, “but when you overlay that with the very sectarian story of the Middle East, especially in countries like Lebanon, it’s really astounding. …  The Syrians, for example, ruled over Lebanon and killed many of the Christians and those that opposed them for decades.”

Gustafson said he has seen members of Lebanese, Iraqi and Jordanian churches welcome “the very people that were plotting to kill them. They saw great change and deradicalization through love and belonging, and the welcome and the hospitality, and, of course, the movement of God in the midst of that.”

One pastor, whose father was injured in a Syrian military attack and eventually died, wept while telling Gustafson, “I used to hate them with a guttural hatred and pray for their destruction, and I thought that was righteous.”

Some Christians in the United States express fear of Middle Eastern immigrants. Gustafson has witnessed some people spreading fear of immigrants on social media, but he hopes the changing attitude of Christians in the Middle East can also be experienced here.

“The New Testament is filled with ‘love your enemy’ and Jesus’ posture toward the outsider, and the downcast and the marginalized,” he said. “I think the church’s role is to model these kingdom principles, and when that happens, it prevents the thing that you fear.”

He referenced a study of Christian conversion over the past 2,000 years that found “migration and immigration are the largest responsible factor for the growth of the church.”

Messy Miracles

Although these conversions seem to be miraculous, Gustafson cautioned that when former Muslim extremists accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, everything does not become instantly perfect.

“It’s a very messy thing,” he said. “Some of these extremists, both men and women, come from polygamous relationships and marriages. Many have drug problems. Some were human traffickers. Others have blood on their hands, have killed many people and are dealing with criminal consequences to that. Many have grown up all their lives with the norm of beating their kids and wives.”

When these former extremists enter the Christian community, conversations often take place about how men should treat their wives and children. Conversion does not always happen quickly when Muslim extremists get to know Christians.

“Even with all the dreams, visions, community belonging, church attendance, and Bible study, many of them said it took them a long time — two to three years to be convinced — to make a decision and then after that the journey of discipleship to deal with the baggage that they have is a long journey,” he said. “These churches are literally hospitals for social and behavioral issues, and kids and parenting.”

Although the discipleship process can be long and complicated, “the gospel is illuminating some of these really dark areas of human existence in that context and redeeming it,” he said. “People get up in church fairly regularly and talk about: ‘You know I used to beat my wife and now I don’t do that anymore, and here’s why.’ That’s how compelling that testimony they bear witness to is to those others who may be searching and coming and hearing.”

To Learn More

Gustafson helped start the Acts 2:11 Project, which “exists to encourage the church to love her Middle Eastern neighbors and break down the barriers of fear, misunderstanding and bias.” Click here to visit the project’s website.

Impact Middle East also works to empower national leaders to proclaim the grace and truth of Jesus Christ and plant reproducing house churches among the underserved. Click here for more information.

This post first appeared as “What Happens When Islamic Extremists Accept Christ?” which was posted on the Light + Life blog on February 28, 2024.

About Jeff Finley

Jeff Finley is Light + Life magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.