In the wake of ISIS-led terrorist attacks like today's explosions in Brussels, a common question will likely surface again: Do extremist groups like ISIS represent Islam?
Given the name of the organization — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — the connection between the movement and the faith is apparent. And it's leaders claim they espouse a pure form of Islam.
Such claims have led many, including Republican presidential candidates, to point to ISIS and its violent tactics as a reason to halt Muslim immigration into the U.S.
But faith leaders argue that the more than 1.5 billion Muslims around the world should not be held accountable for the actions of ISIS or other extremist groups that claim to be living out the teachings of their religion.
Efforts to distance extremist groups like ISIS from Islam are well-intentioned, but unconvincing and even inaccurate, according to some religious literacy experts.
"To protect Islam — and, by extension, Muslims — from any association with extremists and extremism is a worthy cause. But saying something for the right reasons doesn't necessarily make it right," wrote Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, for The Washington Post in November after ISIS-led attacks in Paris. "An overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose ISIS and its ideology. But that's not quite the same thing as saying that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, when it very clearly has something to do with it."
Diane Moore, director of Harvard Divinity School's Religious Literacy Project, told the Deseret News last month that it's important to find a way to address ISIS' understanding of Islam without negative consequences for every other Muslim in the world.
"We want to challenge people's assumption that religions are either all good or all bad," she said.
According to Moore and other religious literacy scholars, Islam, like all faith groups, is internally diverse and evolving. It's impossible to point to a single incident and argue that it represents all of Islam.
"For scholars of Islamist movements and Islam's role in politics, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, there should be one overarching objective: to understand and to explain, rather than to make judgments about which interpretations of Islam are correct, or who is or isn't a 'true' Muslim," Hamid wrote.
However, few Americans hold such a nuanced view of religious practice and anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise. More than half of U.S. adults (56 percent) agreed that "the values of Islam are at odds with American values" in 2015, compared to 47 percent in 2013, according to a recent survey from Public Religion Research Institute.
The most effective approach American Muslims can take to counter the negative views of their faith would be a concerted education campaign that agrees on core messages, the kind that any public relations strategy would involve, experts told the Deseret News in January.
"In a strategic public relations plan, you coordinate your actions and provide messaging to support your actions. The goal is for people to have relatively the same experience no matter who they interact with," said Douglas Cannon, a public relations professor.
One roadblock to this approach is that there is no single leader to speak for American Muslims, but, instead, a few organizations like the Islamic Society of North America and the Council on American-Islamic Relations that are still figuring out how best to work together, the article noted.
Leaders in Muslim faith communities have been joining interfaith councils to build relationships with Christian and Jewish leaders, but more cooperation needs to occur at an individual level as well, the Deseret News reported.
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