CNN  — 

Paris. Nigeria. Pakistan. Australia. Somalia. Turkey. Iraq. Canada.

All are sites that suffered attacks committed by Muslim extremists in recent months. Expand the time frame, and the list lengthens.

Even as the vast majority of Muslims condemn terrorism, the frequency and cruelty of the assaults have led many people to ask tough questions about the faith.

Here are some that seem to be on a lot of minds.

1. Does Islam encourage violence?

Many Muslims bristle at mere hint of this idea, noting that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, most of whom live peaceful and productive lives.

Here’s how Muslim human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar responded on CNN after the attack that killed 12 in Paris on Wednesday.

cnn tonight arsalan iftikhar_00005027.jpg
'Irreligious criminals committing acts of mass murder'
03:51 - Source: CNN

CNN is not the only news outlet raising this question, by the way. The New York Times explored the link between Islam and violence in a front-page article on Thursday.

Iftikhar and other Muslims note that almost every faith, from Christianity to Judaism to Hinduism to Buddhism, has produced acts of terrorism.

Think about it this way: If you were a Jew during the Inquisition in Spain, would you think that Christianity is inherently violent?

Scholars say there is rarely a direct link between religious beliefs and violent behavior. Instead, terrorism is generally caused by a complex web of factors. (More on that later.)

But there’s no escaping this fact: The number of attacks committed by self-proclaimed Muslims has risen sharply in recent years.

Those attacks have led some critics to argue that Islam is inherently violent. To make their case they point to the “Sword Verse” in the Quran as Exhibit A.

Here’s what the verse says:

“Then, when the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, and perform the prayer, and pay the alms, then let them go their way.”

Raymond Ibrahim, an author and frequent critic of Islam, argues that, based largely on that verse, “Islam’s learned officials, sheikhs, muftis, and imams throughout the ages have all reached consensus – binding on the entire Muslim community – that Islam is to be at perpetual war with the non-Muslim world until the former subsumes the latter.”

Many Muslims scoff at that argument, noting that the vast majority of Muslims are clearly not warring with other religions. But this verse has been exploited by extremist groups like ISIS, who say that Muslims have a sacred duty to “kill the disbelievers.

Mainstream Muslim leader accuse both Islam’s critics and extremists of ripping the “sword verse” from its historical context.

“This verse cannot be taken as a carte blanche execution order on all non-Muslims,” Yasir Qadhi, a conservative Muslim-American cleric, explained in a lecture in Memphis last month.

The Quranic passage applies only to pagans in Islam’s Arabian birthplace, he said.

“There’s no sugar-coating it, it’s a threat,” said Qadhi, who has a large following in the United States. “It was meant to scare people, and that’s why paganism disappeared from the Arabian Peninsula.”

2. Why have there been so many recent attacks by extremist Muslims?

There’s no single answer. Instead, experts say there are a range of reasons, from personal motives to global movements, from ancient doctrines to modern technology.

Take, for example, the two suspects in the Paris terrorist attack that killed 12 this week, Cherif Kouachi, 32, and his brother, Said, 34. Both were killed by French police after an intense manhunt on Friday.

According to French media, the men massacred journalists at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, to avenge the Prophet Mohammed, a revered figure in Islam.

But the brothers, born in France to Algerian parents and orphaned at a young age, weren’t particularly religious growing up. Cherif Kouachi was more interested in smoking pot, listening to hip-hop and chasing girls, according to French media.

A Brookings Institution report paints a bleak picture of life for first-generation French immigrants, particularly from North Africa. Many live in neighborhoods suffering from extreme poverty, welfare dependency, black markets and broken families. Nearly 1 in 5 don’t have hot water at home, the report found.

Muslims, meanwhile, often complain about being disrespected by France’s largely secular culture.

We don’t yet know much about the Kouachi brothers’ childhood, but we do know that Cherif Kouachi eventually met a charismatic fellow French-Algerian, Farid Benyettou, who introduced him to a new culture and a new cause.

“The wise leaders in Islam told (Benyettou) and his friends that if they die as martyrs in jihad they would go to heaven,” Kouachi said in French court documents.

Meanwhile, Kouachi watched images of the Iraq War on television, and became convinced that he should take up arms to defend fellow Muslims against American troops.

In 2005, he was arrested as he was about to travel to Iraq. Three years later, Kouachi was sentenced to three years in prison for being part of a jihadist recruitment ring in Paris.

Less is known about Said Kouachi, but French and U.S. authorities say evidence indicates that both brothers received military training from al-Qaeda in Yemen, a failed state that has become a breeding ground for terrorists.

Alienated or impoverished youths. Charismatic radicals who exploit Islamic teachings to recruit followers and lone-wolf attackers over the Internet. Fantasies of revenge for perceived slights. Easy access to lethal weapons. States too weak to kick out terrorists or plug the jihadist pipeline to places such as Syria and Yemen.

None of these factors alone creates terrorists. They all do.

3. How do many Muslims feel right now?

In a word: frustrated.

This email from a longtime, Muslim-American source sums up the sentiment:

“Muslims cannot get a break. Every (expletive) day there must be an event to suggest Islam is inherently violent. Such acts destroy years of goodwill and work about Islam.”

Compounding these feelings of frustration, many Muslims say, is the implication that all Muslims shoulder the blame for terroristic attacks, or aren’t doing enough to denounce them.

Daniel Haqiqatjou, of the website Muslim Matters, wrote one of the wittiest responses to this idea on Friday, satirically suggesting that what Muslims really need is an “iCondemn app.”

“With the iCondemn®, Muslims can say ‘not in my name’ at the speed of life!™ And non-Muslims no longer need to wonder whether 1.6 billion Muslims around the world feel the guilt and sincerely apologize for that latest reprehensible crime some idiot carried out while shouting ‘Allahu Akbar!’”

On a more serious note, recent surveys show that large majorities of Muslims around the world are increasingly concerned about Islamic extremism.

4. Does Islam really ban all images of the Prophet Mohammed?

There’s nothing in the Quran, Islam’s primary text, about depicting the Prophet. But according to the hadith, stories and sayings attributed to Mohammed and his companions, he did discourage Muslims from making images of him.

In some ways, the prophet’s prohibition was a reaction against the other religions circulating through Islam’s Arabian birthplace. Mohammed had seen some of those faiths make idols and gods of their prophets and messengers, and wanted to ensure Muslims’ attention would focus on God alone.

Many modern Muslims follow that advice, and several told CNN this week that they consider any images of Mohammed to be blasphemous.

Still, there is a rich historical tradition, particularly in places such as Persia and Turkey, of depicting the prophet, says Christiane Gruber, an expert in Islamic art at the University of Michigan.

5. Why is Mohammed so important to Muslims?

All religions revere their founding prophets, but for many Muslims, Mohammed is not just the messenger. He’s an embodiment of the perfect believer and a symbol of the faith.

“I, being a Muslim, may tolerate any offense that targets my character and personality,” Muhammad Qasim Noor, a Saudi Arabian teen, told CNN on Friday. “However when the targeted personality is Mohammad, I shall never forgive that person.”

Abed Awad, an expert in Islamic law , said that most law books equate criticism of Mohammed in his role as a prophet with defaming God. Other laws say that disparaging the prophet can sometimes be considered apostasy.

But Islamic tradition also emphasizes that Mohammed was just a man, as fallible as the next guy. One hadith tells the story of a man who asked Mohammed for farming advice.

The advice failed, and the man returned to Mohammed, seeking an explanation. “What do you want from me?” the prophet answered. “I’m only human.”

6. Does Islam need a Reformation?

Just a day before the Paris terrorist attack, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi urged Muslim leaders to start a “religious revolution.”

“You imams are responsible before Allah,” he told clerics at Al Azhar, Egypt’s leading Muslim institution. “The entire world is waiting for your word … because the Islamic world is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost. And it is being lost by our own hands.”

Because of his brutal human rights record – rounding up dissidents, jailing journalists and cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood – many Muslims simply shrugged off al-Sisi’s speech.

But the idea of an Islamic Reformation has been building for more than a decade, with some saying that it’s already ongoing and others arguing that no two religions follow the same historical path. (Christianity began its Reformation, splitting Catholics and Protestants, in the 16th century.)

Many Muslim imams and intellectuals agree, however, that the religion needs to do some serious soul-searching.

“We have lost so many of the core essentials of Islam: mercy, compassion, knowledge, patience, good manners, forbearance … and the list goes on and on,” Qadhi, the cleric from Memphis, said in a message posted on Facebook on Wednesday night.

“Indeed, it is truly sad, our state of affairs.”

Ed Husain, a senior adviser at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, summarized the situation more succinctly, saying: “The house of Islam is on fire.”

7. How can the extremists be stopped?

Farah Pandith, a former special representative to Muslim communities for the U.S. State Department, called extremism a “generational problem.”

The jihadists aren’t recruiting 40-year-olds, she noted on Friday. They’re targeting young people, who are besieged by conflicting media images and can move quickly from Internet inflammation to real-world actions.

Nearly 60% of Muslims are under 30, Pandith said, so it’s crucial for young Muslims, parents, imams, scholars, artists and activists to muster “virtual armies” who can counter the extremist onslaught.

“How are ISIS and Al-Qaeda building their armies? They’re building their armies with recruits,” Pandith said. “We have to stop the recruitment.”