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)


    July 19, 2010 at 8:29 pm |
    • Scott Sampson

      Ummm – when did YOUR ancestors arrive??? – before or after the Indians were slaughtered??? – Oh – I guess so-called 'winners' aren't dirty immigrants...

      And people wonder why it bites to constantly assure people that not all of us Whites are idiots...No wonder we are the minority on the Planet

      July 19, 2010 at 8:41 pm |
    • EricD

      Dear JESUSLOVESYOU. Jesus loves everybody, including Muslims. It seems that maybe Jesus would be very sad after reading some of the hatred in this blog.

      July 19, 2010 at 9:05 pm |
  2. CityJailer

    They are going to tear down that building and put in a completely new one that looks just like the WTC. That would be so funny!!!

    July 19, 2010 at 8:29 pm |
  3. Charlie

    They should fill the fire sprinklers with pig's blood, and make them go off during a prayer!!! that would be awesome!

    July 19, 2010 at 8:29 pm |
  4. N.L. Smith

    I am in total disbelief that this is even being considered. A mosque near Ground Zero??!! It is indeed a slap in the face of every American but especially those who directly lost people in the attacks. Tell you what, let them build it with a few stipulations:
    1) The major imams or whatever start publicly and frequently denounce all terrorist acts committed by muslims,
    2) Take steps to bring their religion into the 21st Century
    3) Abandon Sharia law and do not even insist that it live alongside, inside or above our laws and finally but most importantly,
    4) Start changing the status of women within their religion.

    Then maybe we can talk.
    3) Take major and I mean major steps to change the status of women in their religion

    July 19, 2010 at 8:29 pm |
  5. Rabidmob

    It's the wrong thing to do. Islamic terrorists will see it as a victory.

    It would be better just to build a memorial and take quotes from great leaders, from figure heads in the Bible and the Koran that admonish violence and hatred. Place that there, remind people that it was acts of blind hatred that caused the death of many.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:28 pm |
  6. Kenneth W. Regan

    A mosque two blocks away is fine. The only religious entities on the site should be there by common consent of the victims' families-which do include some Muslims-not by any agency of government. I've always favored having a ballfield and/or park on the site. Get Manhattan a Penn League A team that can play the Brooklyn Cyclones and Staten Island Yanks a bunch of times each year; then put observance sites, a peace park, and a museum nearby. Lots of green.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:28 pm |
  7. sth1

    Al Qaeda are Muslim like those that shoot abortion providers in the name of Christianity are Christian. They distort it to suit their own interests, a convenient excuse to wreak havoc and destroy. This whole argument is absurd...like arguing that no one should be able to rent a Ryder truck in Oklahoma City. What a lot of bluster for nothing. It's two blocks away. It's not in the basement of the Freedom Tower. Many of you say that this is different because Islam is, at heart, violent and at peace with destruction; you think allowing this mosque is giving in to something. But by fighting it you are giving in to the violence, you are letting it sink its fearsome teeth into you. We must engage and learn to get along with Islam, as we have with nearly every newcomer to this country. What better way to show we are not afraid and will not change–the real goal of terrorism–than to let this be.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:26 pm |
    • Scott Sampson

      YES – someone that is sensible!!!

      July 19, 2010 at 8:38 pm |
  8. randy S

    I think we should build the mosque...Then I think we should blow it up.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:26 pm |
  9. Joe A.

    If they want a mosque at Ground Zero, why not a Confederate flag in Atlanta Georgia?
    This guy is an idiot.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:26 pm |
    • SB

      You're kidding, right? Until a few years ago, the state flag of GA consisted in part of a Confederate flag.

      July 19, 2010 at 8:48 pm |
  10. JT Greenberg

    The people behind the horrific attacks on 9/11 are no more representative of Islam than David Koresh was of Christianity, and anyone who has bothered to learn a little bit about the tenets of the religion – rather than just making snap judgments based on the actions of a deranged minority – will know that. Millions of hard-working, patriotic US citizens are Muslim. Those who believe that Muslims are somehow less American just because of their faith are completely out of synch with what this great country is supposed to be about. Many people's families – my own included – came here to escape exactly the kind of religious judgment, persecution and unbridled hate I'm seeing all over the comment board. Let them build a mosque. In fact, let's add an interfaith center next to it.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:24 pm |
  11. Wake-Up

    I can not believe what I have read. This is a new twist on getting the mosque built. This person should be ashamed. NO one should have tolerance for a religion that promotes terrorist. I will once again ask you to read the Koran. There is no room for tolerance for us in this book. You know what I give up trying to warn you stupid people about Islam. You are on your own. Good luck and may the real GOD bless us all.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:24 pm |
    • Scott Sampson

      read the Bible – there are sections that are NOT all that accepting there too – (to say the least) – And yes,there are sections of the Koran that are not peaceful... but there are also many sections that DO explicitly support peace

      The Rush Limbaugh type of interpretation of the Koran is not one I would take seriously...

      None of it is (as I said) part of MY life – but then to each his own – one can disagree WITHOUT hate...

      July 19, 2010 at 8:36 pm |
  12. Charles Nicholson

    If the author of this disgusting approval of building a mosque on Groundk Zero simply wrote the article to get our attention,
    then he damn sure did. Read all the comments of those who disagreed with you A/H – that should tell you something.
    Actually, all you preached is strictly Bull--. If you consider yourself an American, then I'm a friggin' Nazi.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:24 pm |
  13. Gino2

    Consider that it would be an afront and an insult to more people than the number who would making use of it. Why is it that we are required to display kindness and good manners in reaction to an attempt to humiliate us with a mosque so close to Ground Zero. For those who would be practicing their religion at this mosque, it must be clear to them that so many would take offense by it. Not necessarily is it a statement about them, but about the symbolism of it and making a mockery of the greatest country on the planet. Show some style by not creating an issue and build it some place else. If someone is driven to build it so close, then I and many others must question their tru motives.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:23 pm |
  14. Bob

    As a New Yorker who was in NYC on 9/11 and lost friends, and who has no problem with non-extremist Muslims, I still have a HUGE issue with the incredibly insensitive suggestion that a Mosque should be built there. While I acknowledge that the majority of Muslim are not terrorists, it was still in the name of Islam that these terrorists attacked innocent people. I have lost respect for those Muslims even suggesting it. Additionally, this should be up to NYers and/or people personally impacted by the events on that, not random writers from other cities.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:23 pm |
  15. bikermiker

    I applaud the author for having the courage to write this opinion and I agree 100%. The problem is not Islam – the problem is religious fanatics of any persuasion. There are Muslim fanatics, Christian fanatics, Jewish fanatics and, in fact, fanatics in every faith who use their religious beliefs to justify behaviors that to most believers in any of those faiths are wrong, disgusting and perverted. Good people are good people and bad people are bad people and it really doesn't matter if they belong to a mosque or not. The 'enemy' is bigotry and hatred – period – not Islam. And just for the record, I am not a Muslim – I am atheist because I came to the conclusion a long time ago that religions just seem to create more bigots and cause more problems than anything else.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:20 pm |
  16. shashank

    I came to US from India about 4 years ago and I marvel at the freedom (including religious) here. However that does not mean we should not speak truth just because on an 'abstarct' basis that will contradict our values. I think precisely because we value our freedom that we should oppose with tooth and nail any mosque at ground zero. The author should have been more respectful to the families who lost their loved ones to these islamic fanatics than to be worried about 'not potraying our values' to whom? the sheikhs in saudi, the taliban in pakistan. Mr Author you have no locus standi on deciding what should be built over the blood of those innocent people.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:20 pm |
    • ken

      Well said!

      July 19, 2010 at 8:28 pm |


      July 19, 2010 at 8:34 pm |
  17. Scott Sampson

    Well – Once again I am ashamed to be a White guy – I know that racism and racists have no borders – I KNOW that ALL religons have their fundamentalist wings that twist the meaning of their respective 'Holy Books' – I also know that many wars are caused by and fought for religon – we kill a lot of people because we are told by a few people that those other people are bad and we have to kill them – of course THOSE that start the conflicts rarely get involved with the actual combat – they collect money back home where it is often safe....

    Personally I think ALL religon is nuts – even though I was brought up a Christian and even taught 'Sunday School' – I would be happy if people stopped deluding themselves with this imaginary crap... For those self-righteous Christians that send money to nutbars on TV – read Leviticus (Old Testament) and tell me if there isn't a bunch of crazy stuff in there that could be used and twisted for destructive ends..

    HOWEVER – In a free society we have rights – and I would never EVER endevour to stop peoples beleifs as LONG as they do not limit my rights....

    So build whatever you want – Land is NOT sacred – Land is land – dirt – the memories of that day will remain with us regardless –

    Those that attacked used Islam as an excuse to inspire others that were borderline to begin with – Some Christians do the same – Some of Jewish faith also do the same....

    But most people are peaceful... Most just want to be happy and safe...

    My time in the Military made me an atheist – too much death and destruction for no real reason – If we could rid ourselves of the Bin Laden's, the Pat Robersons and the Benjamin Netanyahus (to name a few – a very few) the world would be a better place

    Maybe we can find an Island somewhere and dump them all there – one rifle and 10 rounds each – my guess is that without people to do the fighting, they won't fire a shot – just huddle, wimper and cry...

    Build the Mosque –

    Give me your tired, your poor,your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

    Tolerance just masks the problem – Acceptance is the cure – You want peace? Be accepting, honorable and understanding... (or go and fight yourself – I am too old and too tired to do more for a bunch of greedy, cowardly and power-hungry 'leaders')

    but then – I am just a dumb Aetheistic ex-Infantryman......


    July 19, 2010 at 8:19 pm |
  18. Quentin L Richardson

    If the reasoning for not building the Mosque is because Muslims took down the towers – then let's do this, "Stop Whites (people) from building any churches in New York. After all it was white men and the Klan that killed 4 little Black girls in Sunday School. Now you may say, "I have nothing to do with that"... Does every Muslim that wishes to have this Mosque have anything to do with the Destruction on 9/11? No. Stop being so hateful. Everyone does not havre to look like you, attend your church or, believe what "you" beleive. And...that's OK in America.

    Quentin L Richardson

    July 19, 2010 at 8:19 pm |
  19. Steven

    A better idea, kill all the islamist people's then the world's problems are solved.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:19 pm |
  20. Dave

    If most Americans were tooth fairy worshipers and people that believed in unicorns attacked us, would we ban unicorn worship?

    July 19, 2010 at 8:17 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.