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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. bob9712

    Yea, this would be a real good idea. And in 50 years we won't be able to go there at all. Just ask the Isrealis what happens when then try to go to the temple mount where their twin towers was destroyed 2 thousand years ago.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:48 pm |
  2. Robert LeBlanc

    BRAVO Doug in the way you spelled out the relationship of past Islamic conquerings and where subsequent mosques were built in your video. If that doesn't spell it all out in plain English, then I don't know what would. I have just one question for Stephen Prothero, the author of this article and all the people who have posted a comment above in favor of a mosque being built at or anywhere’s near ground 0 and that question is: If you had the wisdom to know on that dreadful day who was behind those attacks as they were occurring and a muslim had walked up to you when the TOWERS were collapsing before your very eyes and he proposed to you that he and his brethren were planning to build a mosque on that site after the ruble was cleared away, I would bet that most of you would have had a VERY DIFFERENT ANSWER for this muslim who approached you.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:48 pm |
  3. Angelina

    Having worked in Manhattan for 45 years, and having watched the World Trade Center being built back in the 60's, I never would have believed that I would have outlived those towers, or be witness to the devastation and loss of precious innocent lives on 9/11. Who could have conceived a plot with such hatred for Americans and America. Muslims were dancing in the streets in Brooklyn and overseas. And this idiot believes we should have a mosque built near ground zero? The entire idea is blasphemy to the families of those who perished on that horrible day, but to the victims themselves. Anyone who believes a mosque near ground zero "will demonstrate the American ideal" is a moron. We can separate Christianity from patriotism, not like Shirriah law which stones women to death, cuts off hands, and hangs people from cranes in the street. Do the same morons who believe a mosque should be built near ground zero follow the same ideas of the Quoran? No to the mosque, no to Islamic fundamenalists and terrorists. Where is Guiliani in all of this? If he were Mayor, they wouldn't even be THINKING about building a mosque!

    July 19, 2010 at 8:43 pm |
    • John E.Hopkinson

      Right on. Where IS Mr.Giuliani on this?

      July 20, 2010 at 8:38 am |
  4. JDMiami

    Are you kiddingme CNN? This is the THIRD article pro mosque...how about an argument from the other side?

    July 19, 2010 at 8:43 pm |
  5. mac

    i am persian and i live under mullahs rule. whoever thinks it is a good idea to have a mosque there, needs to go and live in a muslim country and get to know and understand what islam is and what kind of people will use and abuse the religion in their own benefit. it is nice to be in the states and think everyone should enjoy the freedom that this country can offer someone. but there should be understanding that this freedom needs to be in hands of responsible people, and not people that can at any point of time jeopardize the basic principals of freedom that we take here as granted. unfortunately, the principals of islam is what you see on tv, and not as they are portraying as peace loving religion. it is a harsh religion that choses force to control people the way they want to, and they would not stop of killing anyone to get to the point they want to be. and this is a fact that no one can close their eyes to, they should not close their eyes to, and should not let them build this mosque.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:42 pm |
  6. Xugos

    Great Article. Maybe when this center goes up, some people who are here bashing Islam right now will take the time to go explore Islam further, for better or for worse it will make your opinion more valid. For those saying "I learned everything about Islam that I needed to on 9/11"...well to each and their own I suppose...

    July 19, 2010 at 8:42 pm |
  7. photodudue

    If a place of worship is to be built, it should be a modern "temple" that includes all religions. The message that should come out of Ground Zero is the need to tolerate, no – celebrate all religions, and the one-ness of all religions in pointing the same goal. Too many people have died in the name of God.

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

      Thank you! A voice of reason...All religions have their radical fanatics. Christianity can not cast the first stone on this moral issue. Can people stop learning about the world issues by reading the fortune cookie news outlets like USAToday, Fox News, CNN, etc. Think for yourself by learning all sides of an issue after reading, thought, and discussion. These 'yea, my big brother can bet up your big brother' conversations only prove how intolerant Americans really are.

      July 19, 2010 at 8:56 pm |
  8. Tim

    Islam recognizes no other religions and no God but Allah. Even Muslims who talk about peace recognize this., Thats why you see few Muslims speaking out on behalf of peace, no scholarly Imams issuing Fatwas forbidding the faithful from killing innocents, and no great outcry in the Muslim world against terrorism. Its interesting that Muslims seek a Mosque at Ground Zero. Go to a Muslim country and try to get permission to open and build a Christian church, see how far you get.

    I'm certainly not anti-Muslim but lets be realistic. Islam is not a tolerant religion (not many religions are) . Read the Holy Quran. If you do I doubt you'll come away thinking that a Mosque at Ground Zero would be built in the name of peace. I would say thanks but no thanks and put up something more appropriate to the true spirit of New York and the country.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:39 pm |
  9. John

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjS0Novt3X4&w=640&h=360]

    July 19, 2010 at 8:36 pm |
    • Scott Sampson

      Inbreeding is a dangerous practice

      Maybe instead of building ANYTHING there we should perhaps offer health care to the vets that fought back – and maybe help those Police and Firefighters that were also injured

      2752 died on September 11th

      4400 died in Iraq and 32000 casualties....

      But hey, at least Bush and the boys slept well

      The numbers just DON'T add up

      July 19, 2010 at 8:52 pm |
    • Odiriye

      feel the pain of those who lost loved ones in 9/11 terror attacks. those who carried out these attacks killed innocent people based on " relegous" apposing an innocent american citizens to build worship center is simply a hatred act based on religious beleifs. those who were killed were American citizen and these that are building the community center are American citizens. unless there is citizenship class in the books of our law that we don't teach our kids.
      God Bless America

      July 20, 2010 at 11:24 am |
  10. Chaos

    So much for the so called "Freedom Tower".

    July 19, 2010 at 8:36 pm |
  11. W00K

    No, put it there...I want to see what happens.....

    July 19, 2010 at 8:35 pm |
  12. Joeanne

    Many of the mosques (not all) in the US are terrorist and information breeding grounds. This building would not be any different....wake up America. Wake up! An islamic megacenter will have devastating repercussions in the future.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:34 pm |
  13. Maani

    Three comments.

    For those who think the center and mosque is "too close" to Ground Zero, I ask: how far is far enough? Five blocks? Ten? Twenty? More? How is that determination to be made, and who gets to make it? And, as Prothero points out, what kind of precedent does that set re the First Amendment issue involved?

    There are currently six churches, four Jewish centers or synagogues, two Buddhist centers and a Bahai center within ten blocks of GZ. Yet the nearest mosque is way up on Allen Street, near Houston. This means there are no places for the growing Muslim population of lower Manhattan (particularly below Canal Street) to worship. Are you all suggesting that it is NOT discrminatory to allow houses of worship of other religions but to disallow a mosque?

    Finally, with respect to survivors and families of victims of the 9/11 attacks, it is instructive to note that for every such person or family who is against the building of the center and mosque, there is a person or family that supports it. I know this because I have worked with many survivors and families: NONE of them oppose this mosque, and most of them actively support it.

    Peace.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:34 pm |
    • John L, NYC

      Great points, Maani. I'm with you 100%.

      July 19, 2010 at 9:27 pm |
    • MayGodblessAmericaAlwaysAmeen

      I agree Maani, most people who know American Muslims personally do support the mosques

      July 20, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  14. the son of God!

    In the 21st century money can by anything , even religion . we are selling everything for middle east oil , going war for oil by the expense of young american men and women life. now we this article telling us about tolerance , we showed more than enough tolerance for muslim fundamentalist 911 was the evidence. Christian in the world losing the faith this days, the best example is most churches in the world acquired by the muslim followers especially in Europe.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:32 pm |
  15. Dawn

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

    And I love the idea of a big statue of Mohammad right across the street from it.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:31 pm |
  16. Jim

    Seek therapy. I'm sure there is a support group that will help you with your syndrome. Stop patronizing to muslims, or any religion for that matter. Ground Zero is the last place to put a religious ediface. Leave it be. Never forget. I haven't forgotten the sight of men falling hundreds of feet, their neck ties trailing above their chest like a parachute chord with no canopy; the women falling with their dresses on fire, descending in utter horror. NEVER FORGET!!!!!

    July 19, 2010 at 8:31 pm |
  17. Amanda

    Why isn`t anyone mentioning the fact that Christians have been killing in the name of their god for centuries? We don`t criticize them. We don`t hold it against every single Christian out there. To sit there and condemn all Muslims is close-minded at best. This is why most other countries, and yes I am saying countries NOT religions, hate us. We are so intolerant. I don`t see why MUSLIM AMERICANS shouldn`t be aloud to build a mosque near "ground zero". There are churches everywhere. If a Christian group were asking to build a church in the exact spot they want to build their mosque, would these people be complaining? More importantly, why is this such an ordeal? Aren`t there bigger things to worry about? We are not at war with Islam. This whole board is making me embarrassed and sad to be an American! I`m terrified to raise my child in this intolerant society we`re living in. You hate mongers really ought to be ashamed of yourselves.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:30 pm |
    • SB

      Amanda, as a parent, I could not agree more. God help future generations, if Americans as a people have adopted the kind of mentality our ancestors came to this country to escape.

      July 19, 2010 at 8:53 pm |
  18. Albert B

    I am Christian and have lived in islamic countries. We are barely tolerated, made fun of and turned down for jobs.
    No mosque at ground zero. Surely the peace loving muslims can understand this. Islam is a messed concept, I refuse to acknowledge that it is a religion. Advocating killing in the name of God ?

    July 19, 2010 at 8:30 pm |
    • Cameron B.

      Are you forgetting the Crusades or the Inquisition? "Killing in the name of God" has been occurring as long as people have believed in God. I'm a devout Christian who's spent most of my life in the middle east – in a strictly Islamic nation, in fact – and I can honestly tell you I was never once put down or mistreated in any way for my religious convictions. We would be remiss to ignore the sad fact that our own faith has a violent history.

      July 19, 2010 at 8:41 pm |
    • Scott Sampson

      Firstly, that is NOT the only thing written in the Koran – And the Bible we so-called Christians use also has discussions of violence...

      Secondly, we live in a different country and have different values – just because other countries have different values does not mean that we need to change ours 'just for them' –

      We lose when we become what we hate –

      July 19, 2010 at 8:45 pm |
  19. yvonne

    This site of New York should not have a" mosque" We need to remember t what hapened and leave the place for those that want to visit it and be near their love ones ' last physical destination.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:29 pm |
  20. ballistic misanthrope

    This is why I'm especially grateful to have been issued a ticket to the Great American Freak Show. The CNN comments section never fails to distill the basest, most primitive impulses humanity has to offer. Kudos to the emotional profiteers amongst our media for curating the intellectual decline of our culture, and accolades to all of you for guilelessly participating in the experiment. You can shave an ape and stand it erect, but you can't shame it out of flinging its own waste.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:29 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.