July 19th, 2010
04:44 PM ET

My take: Ground Zero mosque good for America and New York

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

I love New York, and I love the idea of a mosque at Ground Zero.

What began as a local question concerning the construction of an Islamic community center and mosque a few blocks from Ground Zero has morphed over the last few weeks into a statewide, national and international question — a hot potato in New York’s gubernatorial race, fodder for culture warriors on American talk shows, and a concern to moderate Muslims worldwide.

To those who are exploiting this issue for purposes of politics or ratings, I have nothing to say. Neither will I comment on cynical efforts to endow the building, a former Burlington Coat Factory, with the protection of landmark status, or even more cynical efforts to stir up fear of Islam through one of the most hateful ads ever proposed for television. But I sympathize with the anguish and anger of those who lost loved ones on 9/11 and who do not want to see a mosque built anywhere near what they see as sacred ground.

I am convinced, however, that all these efforts are wrong — wrong for the United States and wrong for New York City.

Two years ago I watched a performance by New York City's Clare Byrne Dance Company called “Kneelings.” It featured four dancers, walking west to east across 23rd Street, from the Hudson to the East River, and kneeling every block or so along the way.

The performance was beautiful, animating a Lower Manhattan morning with the postures of prayer and reminding me that something quiet and beautiful can always break out even in the busiest of places.

What really struck me, however, was the live-and-let-live attitude of New Yorkers. Some people stopped to ask what was going on. Others followed the festivities for a block or two. But most just walked on by. And no one bothered to judge.

That is because, at its best, New York City is a place where people are free to be their own idiosyncratic selves, to do their own idiosyncratic things and to hallow whatever they find holy, even in a space as public as a Fifth Avenue sidewalk.

New York City is where people come when they are tired of being judged for being gay or Sikh or brown or green. In New York, if you want to raise your hands on a street corner and proclaim the lordship of Jesus or the glories of hot yoga, go right ahead. If you want to walk across 23rd Street kneeling every few blocks, more power to you.

After 9/11 there was lots of talk about not letting the terrorists change us. Some of that talk was shortsighted. We should have taken the terrors of that day as a wake-up call to slough off our dependence on foreign oil, for example. But we were right to vow not to let the terrorists change America or its core values.

One of those core values is religious tolerance. To be sure, Americans have failed repeatedly to live up to this value. In the name of Puritan orthodoxy, we banished Anne Hutchinson from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638. In the name of Protestant America, we burned down a Roman Catholic convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1834. But the arc of freedom bends here toward more religious liberty, not less.

The key question underlying the Ground Zero mosque debate is whether Americans are at war with Islam — whether the so-called clash of civilizations between the Christian West and the Muslim world is something we are trying to avoid or something we are trying to provoke.

If Islam is the enemy, then we should not stop at prohibiting the Cordoba Initiative from constructing a mosque within its Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan. We should outlaw new mosques from Cape Cod to Southern California. We might even be justified in rounding up all American Muslims and putting them in internment camps as we did with virtually all Japanese-American Buddhists during World War II.

But if the enemy is terrorism, then we should realize that we only incite and inspire that enemy when we act as if we are at war with Islam.

Since 1654, when Jews first arrived as refugees from Portuguese rule in Brazil, New Amsterdam (as New York was then called) has been a model of thriving religious dissent. Today the five boroughs form one of the world’s most religiously diverse urban areas. Queens alone boasts over 200 houses of worship, including 30 Buddhist temples, seven Hindu temples, six Jewish synagogues, four Muslim mosques and two Sikh gurdwaras.

Opponents say the Cordoba Initiative mosque and community center, which would rise two blocks from Ground Zero, is too close to that site. I say it is too far away. I believe a small mosque ought to be integrated into the redesign of the World Trade Center site itself — a reminder in steel and stone that the United States is not at war either with Islam or with our core values.

Meanwhile, we should forge ahead with the proposed project. I understand there are concerns about the size and funding of the proposed 13-story, $100 million complex. But we cannot let the terrorists undermine the values of the United States, or the live-and-let-live character of New York City.

If this mosque is toppled before it is built, the terrorists win again. If it is built, America wins. So does New York City.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 'Ground zero mosque' • Islam • Politics

soundoff (1,175 Responses)
  1. kyle

    hey ahmede, we arent saying islam is an evil religion: when practiced the right way. but when you actually read the KORAN you can see where our skepticism lies. where it says, ya know, DEATH TO THE INFIDELS (people who dont beleive in islam) dont you think thats kind of a touchy subject for us? you can keep ignoring the facts but US, as the people of the united states and around the world, are realizing what a problem muslim EXTREMISTS are, not muslims in general. what did pres. bush say? "we are not at war with a religion" and proceeded to say that there are a group of people who are taking the views expressed IN THE KORAN, to extreme lengths. I am a 21 year old skateboarding marijuana activist CONSERVATIVE. if you think your BS comments on these posts by true american acceptionalism believers can stop us from reading the koran; looking at the fact that radical muslims KILLED more than 1000 people in a terrorist attack; and that there are more trying to do the same, if not more harm to the american people; then you are SADLY MISTAKEN my friend. if your a peaceful muslim, god/allah bless you. but if your not stay in canada and dont bother coming around here, because we love good people. NOT people yearning for the opportunity to kill us "in the name of allah". This mosque is a disgrace to the american way of life and to american acceptionalism. please let new yorkers make the right choice in shooting this INSANE plan down.

    October 22, 2010 at 11:46 am |
  2. Baltimore Hair Specialists

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    September 16, 2010 at 9:01 pm |
  3. Dragon

    I think its a very good resson to build the Mosque there because i no thats one place them people is not going to bomb that area.and if so
    america dont learn 9.11 should have been anoff.

    August 25, 2010 at 11:07 pm |
  4. Ahmede

    Hello Muslim Bashing Extremists:
    You see, extremism come in all religion, Muslim, Christianity, and Judaism, and all the rest of manmade religions.
    Look at yourselves how ignorant, and misguided you are,,,,I am Muslim Canadian and I love Canada more than any country in the world d I also love all its people regardless of their faith. It seems that you people are like a blind leading another blind. You had being misled over the years to run from the truth. Islam is not what you think it is or what they said it is. Islam is a religion of peace and nothing, but peace. It does not have anything to do with killing, or hurting a human being. Why then you seem to be confusing Islam with heinous acts of terrorism? We Muslims can tell heinous acts of human beings from Christian, and or Jewish faith. How come that you cannot? Are you afraid to find out that Islam is the true faith for mankind? Is what you are scared of to know that Qur'an, the true word of God almighty is the region of peace? And you wonder how much many and effort is spent in hiding the truth…..why? what will the truth do to the powers to be who are trying to hide the truth from you? Ask yourself…..once you know the truth about Islam you will be free and that is why so much time, money, and effort is spent to keep you from the word of God, Qur’an!
    May God almighty show you the right path to salvation? Seek the truth, and nothing but the truth and never let other tell you what the truth is.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:33 pm |
  5. just me

    I really would like to know how its being paid for. I think everyone that has a issue with it should donate money and buy the building! It then can be into memorial center!

    August 15, 2010 at 3:13 am |
  6. Yohi

    I totally agree with Jean Velasquez!!!

    August 13, 2010 at 12:12 pm |
  7. Jean Velasquez

    I agree with you Stephen Prothero. I respect and sympathize with the perspective of those who believe it is a disrespect to those lost in 9/11 and their families. Yet, if there is any place in the world where such a mosque should be built, it should be here in the US, in NYC, near ground zero. Why, some should ask? Simply, because this is America and we can. In any other place in the world such freedom of religion would not be tolerated. But this is America! We should not lower the standard of our core values, but we should embrace more freedom and be a world leader of freedom and democracy. America is not at war with religion, we are at war with Terrorist just as any other country. The mosque has nothing to do with those Terrorist or their conspirators. It is a simple religious temple like any other and should be respected as such. Nothing more, or less!

    August 13, 2010 at 8:30 am |
    • Ahmed

      I am a Muslim Canadian. You comments mean a lot to those of us who are law abiding Muslims who also share with you the values you had mentioned in you comment. It is the right minded person like you Jean, who can tell Islam, the religion of peace for all mankind, and those who use the name of this peaceful faith to commit heinous acts of terrorism. Thanks for your advice and understanding. Finally, I hope that you find in your heart to someday find a copy of Qur’an and see that this region of Islam is not what they say it is, but a beautiful religion that God made it to be. My best wishes for all that you desire. It is Ramadan, and I am fasting and I will pray that you read the Qur'an. Peace to my sister in humanity. Ahmed Yassin

      August 23, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
  8. Alan

    To all you New Yorkers, do you know, some muslim shops close on 09/11 in South Africa in remembrance of the martyrs who died flying the planes into the towers. These are also peacefull Muslims. I would'nt let them build a mosk. This will also be in remembrance of those terrorists.

    August 9, 2010 at 9:53 am |
  9. jefe

    i wonder if the author had a loved one or friend who died during 9/11 if he would be so loving and tolerent. it's easy to forgive and forget when it doesn't effect you. this author should go move to iran and see how loving a society it is.

    August 3, 2010 at 9:34 pm |
  10. Tim

    I gurantee more than half of the people who think islam is a peaceful religion haven't actually read the Koran. If you think it is so peaceful take some time to read it and perhaps hear teachings from the proponents of islam. When New York becomes a haven for terrorism someday we'll blame people like this author and the mayor of new york. Oh wait it has already become a haven for terrorist activity; everything is just being planned out now as we speak.

    August 3, 2010 at 9:07 pm |
  11. Elizabeth

    There appears to be 2 other Elizabeth's here- my comment and mine alone appears at the very end of this blog. I am in no way connected to or hold to any other comments made by the other 2 Elizabeths- I am Elizabeth P. and a native New Yorker- I believe many of the comments posted here are from people who are not native to this great city but from other cities across this land and migrated here to follow there dreams – am I right? By the way, have any of you blown up any buildings lately?

    August 3, 2010 at 6:57 pm |
  12. Elizabeth

    I am an American- I don't have to accept islamic and/or muslim teachings -neither do I need to have someone else's principles shoved own my throat for the sake of peace. We were at peace that clear blue-sky morning on Tuesday September 11, 2001. But a dozen or so peace-loving muslims in the name of their god allah decided they were going to teach America a lesson. And they directed that lesson at the very same city that always welcomed freely any and all to these shores. Don't tell me we should allow those muslims now- the very same who are of the same devotion- to build a mosque without sweating their butts off while fingering their worry beads wondering if the same thing will happen to it. I am appalled that they are allowed to stop traffic as well as pedestrians because they want to pray to the east. What happened to the unauthorized assembly ordinance? Don't give me this live-and-let-live b.s – New Yorkers are jaded from all the crap they've had to take. Yes NY is a diverse city-more than any city in the this great country of ours. But what we don't need is another slap in the face from people who are undermining everything this country stands for. You liberal-thinking individuals who believe you can't be touched by what's happened, in only the past 10 years, better go back to the history books- I mean the real history books – the ones that don't reduce the Vietnam war to a paragraph or don't even mention the attack on the USS Cole or the 200+ American soldiers killed in Lebanon. Don't tell me that behind their closed or curtained doors, there is not the smirking guiled faces of muslims just waiting for the next taking over of our American dream.

    August 3, 2010 at 6:25 pm |
  13. Joe Vancil

    I think it's time to use eminent domain and let the government construct something useful and non-offensive at the location. I propose a fire station. Make it a *REAL* tribute to some folks who died doing the *RIGHT* thing.

    August 3, 2010 at 3:47 pm |
  14. Jewish and Upset

    While I was born in US, and think of myself as quite tolerant, I find it hard to believe that a mosque is going to rise from the ashes of several thousand people. My entire life, I have lived amongst hundreds of thousands of different people. I don't think that too many of us would have a problem with a mosque being built in the AREA. This is America, for God's sake! We claim to be a free country, and I guess we are, but as with any "new" nation, the "natives" are bound to be hostile. I guess NYC would be stupid not to make this "sale", after all, it is "just" a piece of land, but not enough time has passed since 9/11. Ground Zero needs to move forward, but not as a place of worship and victory.

    August 3, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
  15. Tyler

    We all pray to the same God – the rest is simply semantics.

    August 3, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
  16. Really

    I've made an honest effort to consider the side of the proponents of this community center, but in the end it really feels like the Cordoba Initiative is less about "celebrating diversity," and more about exploiting the very core values this piece alludes to. "Tolerance" to me is respecting another point of view, or belief, or practice; as opposed to seeing how far you can push it. Considering that the proponents of this initiative made it quite clear (SEVERAL times) that they wanted this to be a "Mosque near Ground Zero," I would argue THEY are the ones being intolerant, and moreover disrespectful. Furthermore, I found this article to be tragically naive. And I'm a Liberal.

    August 3, 2010 at 2:29 pm |
  17. Gino Rodrigues

    I was in New York in Feb of the following year. People were walking around looking up for airplanes. Very trumatic even then. We when to ground zero and it was still smoldering or burning in my opionion. The smell was horrific. What would make an idealogy so evil as to not just think of planes into a buildings in a city but then carry it out. This Mosque is being used as symbol a symbol to that day. The muslims are facing a moment in their history. Will extremism become the definition of Islam More and More they are the voice of Islam, where is the leadership's outcry, it's condemnation of these acts in the name of the beloved Prophet. Who are we to believe when the only voice we hear is volience, bombings. and death everywhere. But we are not the ones they are killing, mostly ppl shoping in the markets, or at a funeral, or at their mosque preying yet we are suppose to be the cause and the excuse the extemists use on the daily. Where are the leaders in Islam, who do we talk to to make things right. Who is your leader and why has he or she not shown themselves. I refuse to believe that the many who pray up to five times a day, will allow these crazy ppl to hijack their religion.

    August 3, 2010 at 2:25 pm |
  18. Mark

    These CNN reporters and editors should be deported to islamic countries. I had a friend whom died on 9/11, I saw how his family was hurt and grieved about his unnecessary death. This is also a slap in the face of our fallen and wounded service members whom where sent to fight for us in the aftermath of 9/11. I think Americans are just totally out of their minds.

    August 3, 2010 at 2:02 pm |
  19. Josh

    I will keep it simple. Stop writing columns your a idiot

    August 3, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.