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. mattd

    Does anyone else share my concern at the name "Cordoba initiative?" Cordoba was the site in Spain where the Ummayyad dynasty Muslims tore down a Christian church and built a mosque as a symbol of their victory. Any student of history should see a parallel here. This scares me.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:03 pm |
    • Lola

      In light of history (the great mosque of Cordoba,) the choice of name seems a little shady.

      July 20, 2010 at 1:13 am |
    • John E.Hopkinson

      Riht on mattd; those who were watching CNN's coverage of the "Ground Zero mosque hearing" will remember that a female participant briefly but forcibly presented the Cordoba incident and expressed her concern that the Committee had not given some thought to the relevance of the name "Cordoba" and its possible intent: mockery, confrontation/
      Shady indeed, Lola.
      Best reading on the entire subject: Bernard Lewis: "The Assassins", "What Went Wrong?", etc. "Learned, lucid and elegant...with great skil (Lewis) disentangles truth from legend" The Economist.
      If you don't read up on Islam, you will not be able to adequately argue your position. And you will lose.

      July 20, 2010 at 7:06 am |
  2. Rick McDaniel

    Some people would love to dishonor those who died there. Apparently you are one.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:03 pm |
  3. Ituri

    Apparently the PC crowd doesn't realize WHY Muslims build mosques in such places.

    They build mosques on the ground of CONQUERED FOES. If you don't think they'll be dancing on the graves of our dead, then you are so far lost to the P.C. nonsense demanding tolerance even for those that WILL attempt AGAIN to harm us. Tolerance of VIOLENCE is not tolerance, its stupidity.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:01 pm |
  4. nabi18

    please check out http://www.islamicsolutions.com/do-they-even-know-what-islam-is/

    July 19, 2010 at 9:00 pm |
    • Egghead

      Yes! Islam is fatwas giving death sentences on the heads of CARTOONISTS.

      July 20, 2010 at 3:05 am |
  5. Bob

    Interesting comments. I think that ground zero and the area around ground zero represents one of the cruelest attacks on America ever conducted. Not until Islamic terrorism stops should a mosque be allowed in this area. The people that would like to build the mosque have the responsibility to help stop terrorism by Islamic extremists. This act would be a demonstartion of a truely religious peoples capability to make a more peaceful world.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:00 pm |
  6. Fred Goepfert

    Islam is not a religion. It is a movement for world conquest hiding behind the trappings of a religion. Its founder was a warrior-conquer. The manual he compiled, the Quran, contains explicit directions to conquer by force or subversion. The "god" he created was simply one of the pagan Arabian gods, the moon god, which he elevated to be "the greatest of all". Because of their fear of Christianity, Liberal humanists are willing to embrace a pagan movement for world conquest, and accept dhimmitude.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:59 pm |
  7. mas

    well said stephen-

    to those who want to ban the mosque–the perpetrators of 9-11 we mostly saudis. if you want to ban the mosque then also ban all saudii national corporations and stop buying their gas at the local station. uh–oh this will cost me $$ cant do that. grow up US and all you islamaphobes-these are your drug dealers. get clean or embrace them. your phoney baloney outrage is that of simpletons who cant see the big picture

    July 19, 2010 at 8:58 pm |
  8. Don

    I'm not quite sure what the hubbub is about. Freedom of religion, people. One of our greatest principles.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:57 pm |
  9. dave

    Andy you are so naive to what is written in their Koran...THeir leader was a cut throat..
    be prepared to be laughed at for you naiveness

    July 19, 2010 at 8:57 pm |
  10. John

    Religion is for the weak minded.

    Religion has and will always be the leading cause of death in the World. Religion will also be the end of the world.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:57 pm |
    • Zeeeee

      Your life must be very empty.

      July 19, 2010 at 9:34 pm |
  11. Uncle Beasley

    The very fact that an Islamic group would even think of putting a mosque near Ground Zero is enough to deny them a permit to build. What kind of callous, insensitive people are they? How can they fail to see the insult they heap upon the memories of those who were murdered that day?

    Instead of respect for our loss, these Islamic believers show only arrogance. If they were truly a "religion," they would not even think to desecrate what for others has become holy ground.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:55 pm |
  12. samuel

    'The Jihad of Muhammad was the Jihad of Joshua and the prophets between them. it was not terrorism at all. the prophets of God have their rules of engagement just like your government has its rules.

    as for terrorism in the name of islam then this terrorism is attacking islam and killing many muslims. it is not a war on non muslims alone. read about the deaths in the muslim market places throughout the muslim lands.

    if you wish to wage war against terrorism then Islam is with you. but if you wish to wage war on islam then you will never be successful. never will you defeat islam.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:54 pm |
    • Moloko Vellocet

      "it is not a war on non muslims alone." Oh well, everything is okay, then. I'm so relieved the muslims fight everyone and not just us, so we don't have to feel singled out as targets for murder and mayhem. A great argument for building the mosk on the site of the muslims' nefarious, sneaky and underhanded murder plot.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:58 am |
  13. Kurt

    Look, not all Muslims are terrorists, but this idea is still in VERY poor taste. New York is a big city, they can't build the mosque elsewhere? This is about as disrespectful as erecting a Buddhist or Shinto temple at Pearl Harbor.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:53 pm |
  14. Gerrard

    You can't build a mosque on that site........don't let the muslims win again!

    July 19, 2010 at 8:52 pm |
  15. AlG

    It's really quite simple : Tolerance and mutual respect is a two way street. Surely majority of American's either fall into the camp of being repulsed by the idea of a mosque at Ground Zero, or being somewhat indifferent about the location. If you fall into this latter camp, why not choose another site? To build a mosque so close to Ground Zero is for many people the height of insensitivity and for me this would be an unconscionable act. Make no mistake that this will be interpreted by much of the world, let alone the Muslim world, as a stake in the heart of American values. Move on and build the mosque somewhere else.... not Ground Zero.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:52 pm |
  16. dave

    Im so sorry to say but this author is for sure into "religion". He has no idea of the concept of Love and justice.
    You do not have to hate the muslim ppl..but you are naive to think they are wanting to be in bed with us..we are INFIDELS...Grow up and do not dare apease those who would kill christians and jews...
    so sad !!!!!!

    July 19, 2010 at 8:52 pm |
  17. Ames F. Tiedeman

    Islam is the largest totalitarian regime ever invented. If it did not hide behind the cloak of "religion" it would be banned from the civilized world. Islam does not represent religion, it represents intolerance and hate. Only Islam could convince the 911 attackers that they would be rewarded in heaven for their vile deeds. The Muslims, by-and-large, want the Jews and the Christians dead. What kind of a nation have we become? Do we have no pride? Do we have no will? Do we have no guts? American values do not suggest that all religions must be accepted on equal footing. Western man founded America, not Islam. The Islamic world burns Christian churches to the ground. We are now going to reward them with a Manhattan Mosque? We have lost our minds. We have become nothing but slush. Stupid, weak, pathetic slush. Who is worried about being called rotten names over this? Not me. I despise the teachings of Islam. I despise the way the religion treats women. I despise the cultural values of destruction and death. No apologies here. Ever! Turn America into 5 or 10% Islamic and we shall have Civil War.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:52 pm |
    • Moloko Vellocet

      Hear, Hear! That was well said and I agree 100%.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:41 am |
  18. Gerrard

    You can't build a mosque on that site. Are all you people nuts?? They should miove ahead with the freedom tower project...putting a mosque on that site shows our weakness.....let the muslims build a mosque somewhere else.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:51 pm |
    • Scott Sampson

      I is not ON the site – it is down the street –

      July 19, 2010 at 8:54 pm |
  19. greg

    it is a fact that innocent muslims died in the 911 attack. Don't the families of those victims deserve a place to offer prayers? Are we not a diverse nation, founded upon religious freedom? Others are just confusing the issue with pure emotion that is irrational.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:51 pm |
  20. Marcia

    I think you totally miss the point because you don't live in NY. It is not a part of you. This is a very painful thing for these Muslims to do. If they want to bring healing, they can and have a right to. But, not a couple of blocks from Ground Zero. No one is denying them a right to have their Mosque...just not so close to Ground Zero. It will only cause more pain and if they are Godly people, they should not do a thing as this. First of all, I don't think any non-Muslim would patronize their facility. How do they even know that non-Muslims would patronize them? Did they do some kind of study or needs analysis? I don't think so. This is to their benefit only. They don't care about the infidels as they call non-Muslims. And wouldn't it be against their religion to socialize with non-Muslims? There are so many other vacant buildings in NYC that they can buy, so why this one? Why so close to Ground Zero. They should have a heart.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:50 pm |
    • Frogist

      Marcia, I am sorry for your pain. However, some of your statements are incorrect. And some are a bit irrelevant. Maybe you can scroll up to Maani's comment because he made a good point that muslims have no place to pray within that area while other denominations have multiple houses of worship. Also I know quite a few muslims because I lived in a country where we coexisted. And one of my best friends is muslim. She has never once called me an "infidel" even though I was raised Presbyterian and am now agnostic. (The same cannot be said for my evangelical friend.) Her family always welcomed me. It's obvious that they care about me and we socialised whenever we could. All moslem people are not the same. The question of whether it should be built based on whether non-muslims would use it, is a bit biased. You wouldn't ask the same thing of a catholic church or a jewish temple? Or any building for that matter.
      I think maybe learning a bit more about moslem culture and meeting some people who are moslem might help disperse the hurt you are feeling. You may start to understand a lot of them are the same as you are.

      July 22, 2010 at 11:07 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39
About this blog

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.