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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. Maggot

    Here is why not to build – how come it takes a Brit to figure it out?

    Spend 6 minutes and listen to this.

    http://www.jihadwatch.org/2010/06/pat-condell-on-ground-zero-mosque-is-it-possible-to-be-astonished-but-not-surprised.html

    July 19, 2010 at 9:27 pm |
  2. Ted G.

    Anybody get the feeling the world is owned by completed jack asses?

    July 19, 2010 at 9:27 pm |
  3. Barada

    I don't think prohibiting the construction of a mosque goes against the grain of American core values. Churches, temples, and whatever are subject to zoning restrictions in virtually every community in the land. If the community does not want it, it should not be allowed. If this group wants to make a statement, why don't they speak out against what they claim is a tiny minority who subverts their religion of peace. The general lack of such outcries, makes me wonder if that minority really is so insignificant or if it really is such a peaceful religion.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:26 pm |
  4. Bill McClain

    I so agree that Muslims should build a mosque near ground Zero. In twenty or fifty years, when the wound is not so open.

    I cannot get past the sensitivity for my brothers and sisters who were in the North Tower or the South Tower, or our husbands and wives of those who were. And my neighbors who were First Responders who ran selflessly into the buildings and are now in unmarked graves. Sorry, it hurts too much.

    And I cannot get past the size and grandeur of this mosque they are planning. It's a monument.

    Sorry.It's wrong. Now.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:25 pm |
  5. Frank Ricard

    Praise Jeebus...

    July 19, 2010 at 9:23 pm |
  6. Paul

    1. Let's put a Shinto shrine at the USS Arizona.
    2. Let's put a Catholic Church on the Temple Mount.
    3. Let's put a US Consulate at Ground Zero in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    4. Let's put a Minuteman recruiting station in Oklahoma City on the reflecting pond.

    All of these are great ideas – just like the one to put a mosque at ground zero in NYC.

    I'd support the mosque if the Catholic Church is OK at Temple Mount – but let that the church be built first.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:23 pm |
  7. Roy

    Islam is a religion of hate and violence. Erecting a mosque so close to their greatest accomplishment on the western world in wrong on every way imaginable. If they get funding and approval I will be praying God will destroy it with an earthquake and cause the businesses funding it to go under. As for the author of this disgusting article...... WAKE UP...... YOU MAY BE NEXT! If you don't think so, name one thing the muslims have done to help America become a better nation..... go ahead..... just one!

    July 19, 2010 at 9:23 pm |
  8. Brian James

    Hear, hear, Prothero!

    July 19, 2010 at 9:22 pm |
  9. conflicted

    Dear Andy:

    I am a Muslim and I think you are a far sighted man. Also, it represents the best in Christian tradition, as much as I deplore the violence that a section of tthe Muslim community is propogating. We are not all like that and, in time, I hope this madness will subside. You speak to a better future and are contributing to building it.

    All power to you and to the Big Apple.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:20 pm |
  10. dominique76

    i do not agree with this mosque business!!!

    July 19, 2010 at 9:18 pm |
  11. Cheryl

    I had a friend ask me about this at lunch today and I was kinda surprised there was an issue. She asked me my feelings on it and I told her "Well, if this mosque is run by people who are thumbing their noses at our pain and throwing it in our faces that "ha ha, we won" it's not appropriate" but I didn't feel that was what was going on. I told her I think that this is a good way for a Muslim faith to say "Not all of us are like the people who did this, not all of us agree with it and we'll show you all the GOOD we can do; we can be kind to society and we can live good lives and be good people and not do it in a way that brings pain to others."- overall I think THAT is the kind of people we're looking at who thought to build this mosque so close to where the twin towers once stood. I consider it somewhat of a tribute to those we lost that day.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:18 pm |
  12. samuel

    The whole earth is a masjid for the muslims

    July 19, 2010 at 9:16 pm |
  13. trying2save

    It is insensitive on part of muslims to divide people in the name of a mosque. Why create unnecessary controversy, in the first place.
    If they are concerned why not built a church. Majority of those that died on that fateful day were Christians by faith.

    Consider no church will be allowed in Saudi Arabia etc...

    July 19, 2010 at 9:15 pm |
  14. SGT Eric

    The name of this project has changed, it is no longer the Cordoba House, instead it's no called 51Park. You PC idiots really need to research what happened in Cordoba when the Muslims conquered it and ran it for the next 700 years. Equality my foot. This is supremacy pure and simple. The terrorist supporters that are running this project refuse to denounce muslim terrorists and make excuses for them. They whine and call racism and islamophobia against anyone that refuses to support this mosque. This terrorist supporter claims that this has NOTHING to do with the islamic based terrorist attacks on 9/11, so WHY is the grand opening scheduled for September 11th 2011 (THE TENTH ANNIVERSARY)? ANSWER – IT HAS EVERYTHING TO DO WITH 9/11 – THE ISLAMIC WORLD BIGGEST VICTORY AGAINST THE GREAT SATAN.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:13 pm |
    • SGT Eric

      Also if this mosque is built I WILL ENTER IT, SINCE IT'S BEING BILLED AS AN OUTREACH CENTER. IF ANYONE THERE TRIES TO PREVENT ME FROM ENTERING IT -I WILL TEAR IT DOWN!

      July 19, 2010 at 9:21 pm |
  15. Tom R

    Really? You honestly want a Mosque to tower over the WTC memorial? What is that saying to the families and survivors of the terrorist attacks of 9/11? I know that not all muslims are terrorists. I dated one once. Still it was a radical Muslim group that commited those crimes.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:10 pm |
  16. InfoRodeo

    I agree with those who say this is insensitive. While we should uphold freedom of religion 9christian or not) and freedom of expression, the fact of the matter is that persons identifying as Muslim committed an act of terror at that location. It doesn't matter whether or not they were 'radical' or "fundamentalist" and that the mosque would be more representative of "normal' Muslims (honestly, I have to question how some who are NOT 'radical' wish to do such an extreme thing).

    As others have stated, how would it be taken if a group of Christians or Jews went to a site where Muslims have been slaughtered and began plans to build a large church or synagogue on that place? (and before you history buffs start pointing out medieval acts of war, keep in mind "we're civilized now" and it makes no sense to regress for the sake of centuries-old revenge).

    A Mosque at "ground zero" is a tongue-in-cheek slap at the United States and all those who lost loved ones on 9/11 and in the subsequent wars.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:10 pm |
  17. all you idiots are retarded

    Another retard on cnn. Big surprise!

    July 19, 2010 at 9:09 pm |
  18. the Marquis

    T Tar sucks.

    (Ok, I confess, this comment was plagiarized. I actually stole these words from a very talented and eloquent author and just changed the name in the beginning.)

    July 19, 2010 at 9:06 pm |
  19. Lenny

    Mosque (or any religious center for that matter) is the last thing that should be put there. There are less controversial ways to waste prime building space that is in huge demand.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:05 pm |
    • horrified

      it's NOT on the ground zero site. the memorial and freedom tower are still being built. the mosque is being built in an old burlington coat factory store. this isn't prime real estate! you can't even see ground zero from it!

      someone who opposes building the mosque, please inform us how many blocks away would be acceptable? and if your answer is that nowhere would be acceptable, well, then you don't understand the fundamental values and principles on which this country was built, and the founding fathers would be ashamed.

      July 19, 2010 at 9:27 pm |
  20. mejazzbo

    NUTS!

    July 19, 2010 at 9:05 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.