New Research on Extremist Conversion Phenomenon

I was recently interviewed on The Locker Room podcast about my PhD research. We discussed mission and I shared a few encouraging stories. You can listen here, below are some highlights from the conversation.

Destabilization: Fear to Love

My dissertation research involved qualitative interviews with 52 former extremists and clergy working in the midst of a Levantine conversion phenomenon. There’s been a lots of conflict in that region going back hundreds of years, of course. But in the last 10 years or so, there’s been a high incidence of conversion specifically from Islam to Christianity. In the Levant, this conversion movement and the growth of the church is probably the greatest we’ve seen since Antioch in the 1-2nd century.

Each of their stories is so tragic in the terrible things that happened, and then on the opposite side, so hopeful in the kind of experiences they had with God and the encounters with ‘the other’.

Here’s a preview of what I kept hearing in my interviews. In the Middle Eastern mindset, there’s a fear of consequences if you step out of line. However, with lots of migration and people movement because of the war, people were pushed out of their social structures. And this gave them an opportunity to ask some questions.

And in the cases of some extremists, they came into contact with a Christian, often for the first time. And they’d meet them in the context of a feeding program or a medical clinic. And they’d say, well, these people aren’t as bad as I thought. And they start to learn about the love of God.

Many I interviewed talked about the Sermon on the Mount, the love of enemy. This whole idea is brand new to them. And so the pull then is the love versus the environment of fear.

Tribalism to Citizenship in Heaven

God is the God of the nations—and at Pentecost, God brought together the family of God from all different tribes and tongues. We see in Acts 2 the many languages and ethnicities present.

We see tribalism even in non-tribal society. We might say sectarianism or ethnocentrism as kind of correlative terms. In essence, people that aren’t in my identity group are a threat. When we pick one primary thing, to put it above the others and determine our identity and belonging based on that, that gets dangerous.

However, when Paul says that our citizenship is in heaven, this orients the Christian towards a primary identity that is something universal that we can all share with a global body of believers instead of an ethnic basis for belonging.

Dreams and Visions

A surprising discovery in my research was the plethora of dreams and visions in these conversion narratives—including 83% of the extremists I interviewed. Western Christians may be more used to Jesus as the subject of propositional truth, but for these people, Jesus is real and alive

God is seeking, searching, finding, drawing people to himself and uses whatever means and languages—dreams and visions or intellectual concepts—that draw people.

While dreams and visions may be foreign to Western Christians, I make the case in my paper that from a counterterrorism perspective, if we’re not taking seriously the supernatural world of people we’re trying to talk with and deradicalize, then we’re missing a whole component of their world.

For those who have experienced dreams and visions Jesus is not just an ideal, not just a historical figure, but a living person who has visited them personally in dreams and who is at work creating a new family for them, healing the sick and rescuing people from extremism. One guy, he awoke from a dream that was so vivid, he started searching for Jesus behind the curtains!

The Physical Body of Christ

At the Ascension, we see Jesus goes up into the clouds in a physical state and disappear. But the angels there say to the disciples looking on that he will come back in the same way that you saw him go. And so the implication is that Jesus is somewhere physically present. And someday he will come back. Revelation talks about the city coming out of the clouds, and it describes in these wonderful terms a very physical reality.

In many of the stories of the people I interviewed, they spoke of seeing the physical body of Jesus. So that’s fascinating to me to overlay on some of these stories where these people I interviewed believe that Jesus is real, not just a concept, but a person who is alive and who appeared to them and touched them.

And then the Church as the Body of Christ is incarnating once again this lived Jesus. We are to become like Him in our modes of being and how we treat each other. And they see Jesus again represented in this body, this physically present group of people here on earth.


Probably the biggest difference, between how the Middle Eastern church has conceptualized their role in evangelism and mission and how the Western church typically does is the the idea of wholeness or holism—a holistic practice of mission.

If you look what Jesus preached in the gospels, Jesus preached about the coming Kingdom. And John’s disciples come to him and say, Are you he who was to come or should we wait for another? And he says to them, Go back and tell John the blind receive their sight, the sick are healed, the Kingdom is at hand. The Gospel Jesus preached was incredibly holistic and physical.

So instead of only focusing on personal, spiritual transformation or agreeing to a set of doctrines, the Church in the Middle East is showing this Kingdom way of life, this is a whole new way of doing community, relating with a spouse, parenting kids, being a friend, relating to the community around, doing a job, whatever it is.

A Message to the Western Church

Since September 11th, but bspecially during the last decade, anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment among white Evangelical Christians has been at an all time high. But the fact is that God is choosing to work among these very people. Could it perhaps be even for the awakening of our own congregations, churches, our concept of mission, that God’s saying, No, I actually love those people and I speak their language and look at the work I’m doing among them right now?

What might that mean for our concepts of who’s in and who’s out and who’s worthy and who’s not? It challenges our ideas of God, who is so much bigger than we often imagine.

About Scott Gustafson

Scott Gustafson has extensive experience in ministry and business in the Middle East, having lived or worked in the region for 20 years. He is a PhD candidate at Vrije Universiteit working with the Extreme Beliefs Project. He is a guest lecturer and is also the Managing Partner of Purpose Global Strategies, an International Business and non-profit consulting firm. He advises large funding agencies as well as indigenous businesses and ministries in Sudan, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. He has an MA in Intercultural Communication from Moody Graduate School, and a BA in Nursing and Biology from Western Michigan University. Scott and his wife have 2 children and they live in Grand Rapids, MI. Follow his Substack.