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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. WL

    When everyone is free to teach their own religion in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran, without fear of persecution, and when Islamic terrorists cease trying to establish a Pan Islamic southeast Asian nation, we can talk about freedom of religion and the right to build a mosque by the symbol of Islamic terrorism.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:45 pm |
  2. Quills

    No mosque near ground zero. And please, quit calling us ignorant. I am Byzantine Catholic.
    How much do you know about my religion? I don't expect you to. I grieve for 911 victims'
    families and I would not want to add any stress for them if some would feel uncomfortable.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:42 pm |
  3. Abdulameer

    At the root of this opposition to mosques is the fear that Islam might just not be the religion of peace that our misguided political leaders say it is or that Islamic spokesmen from the Moslem advocacy organizations say it is. There is a fear that Islam is not just another religion like Christianity or Buddhism or whatever. These fears are well-founded, but because of general ignorance of the doctrines of Islam, people can't be sure. In fact, Islam is NOT a religion like other religions; and Islamic scholars are the first ones to say so. For example, Yusuf Qaradawi (the most influential Muslim cleric in the world today, the spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood) said: "Islam is not a religion in the common, distorted meaning of the word, confining its scope only to the private life of man. By saying that it is a complete way of life, we mean that it caters for all the fields of human existence. In fact, Islam provides guidance for all walks of life — individual and social, material and moral, economic and political, legal and cultural, national and international." This "complete way of life" is the Sharia sacred Islamic law which calls for the legal subordination of non-Moslems to Moslems and of women to men; it requires death for homosexuals, apostates and blasphemers. And, it calls for eternal war (jihad) against non-Moslems until Islamic law dominates throughout the world. These doctrines all come from the Koran and the sayings of Muhammad which are preached and taught in every mosque in the world, and will be taught in the proposed mosques. People questioning the new mosques need to understand why Islam is unique and not like other religions. Then they would know that mosques are not like churches because mosques are centers for the propagation of sharia law. If Islam is not like other religions, it should not be treated like other religions. If mosques are not like churches and other houses of prayer, then mosques should not be treated like other houses of prayer. Mosques are centers for the propagation of Islamic supremacist ideology, and they should be treated like other centers for the propagation of supremacist, violent and imperialist ideology, such as the Communist Party or the Nazi Party.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:39 pm |
  4. evensteven

    Intolerance, thy name is Republican . . .

    July 19, 2010 at 9:38 pm |
  5. Abdulameer

    Here are just a few of the doctrines that will be taught and preached in this Ground Zero mosque, as they are in every other mosque:
    Here is a sampling of the doctrines of Islam which motivate the hearts and minds of all religious Moslems:
    FROM THE KORAN:
    –“ the (only) religion (acceptable) before God is Islam." (3:19)
    - " If anyone desires a religion other than Islam, never will it be accepted of him." (3: 85)
    - “You are the noblest community ever raised up for mankind.” (3:110)
    - The unbelievers among the people of the book and the pagans shall burn forever in the fire of Hell. They are the vilest of all creatures. (98.6).
    - Surely the vilest of animals in Allah’s sight are those who disbelieve. (8.55)
    –The unbelievers are your inveterate enemy. (4:101)
    - Mohammed is God's apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another. (48:29).
    - It is unlawful for a believer to kill another believer, accidents excepted. (4:92)
    - Believers, take neither the Jews nor the Christians for your friends. (5:51)
    - Make war on them until idolatry shall cease and God's religion shall reign supreme. (8:40)
    - Fight against them until idolatry is no more and God's religion reigns supreme. (2:193)
    - The true believers fight for the cause of God, but the infidels fight for the devil. (4:76)
    - We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. (3:151)
    - I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, strike off the very tips of their fingers. (8:12)
    FROM THE SAYINGS OF MUHAMMAD:
    - Muhammad said to the Jews: "If you embrace Islam, you will be safe. You should know that the earth belongs to Allah and His Apostle, and I want to expel you from this land. “
    - Allah's Apostle said, "You (i.e. Muslims) will fight with the Jews till some of them will hide behind stones. The stones will (betray them) saying, 'O 'Abdullah (i.e. slave of Allah)! There is a Jew hiding behind me; so kill him.' "
    - Mohammed said, "I have been ordered to fight with the people till they say, "None has the right to be worshipped but Allah, and whoever says, " None has the right to be worshipped but Allah , his life and property will be saved by me." (otherwise it will not).
    - Mohammed said, "Whoever changes his Islamic religion, kill him."
    - Mohammed said, " No Muslim should be killed for killing a Kafir" (infidel).
    - Muhammad said: "Fight in the name of Allah and in the way of Allah. Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. Make a holy war, …"
    In addition, the most popular manual of Islamic sacred law, approved by the highest Islamic religious authorities of Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, says: "Jihad means to make war on non-Muslims." What could be clearer than that?
    And, how about this:
    Ayatollah Khomeini, the most important Moslem leader of the 20th Century, said: "Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war. Those who say this are witless. Islam says: Kill all the unbelievers just as they would kill you all! Does this mean that Muslims should sit back until they are devoured? Islam says: Kill them, put them to the sword and scatter their armies.... Islam says: whatever good there is exists thanks to the sword and in the shadow of the sword! People cannot be made obedient except with the sword! the sword is the key to Paradise, which can be opened only for the Holy Warriors! There are hundreds of other Koranic psalms and Hadiths urging Muslims to value war and to fight. Does all this mean that Islam is a religion that prevents men from waging war? I spit upon those foolish souls who make such a claim."
    And, how about this:
    From Jihad in Islam by Sayyeed Abdul A'la Maududi, one of the most prolific and most widely read and influential Islamic writers of the 20th Century:
    “The goal of Islam is to rule the entire world and submit all of mankind to the faith of Islam. Any nation or power that gets in the way of that goal, Islam will fight and destroy.”
    All of this is Islam - the faith, the belief system, the ideology. The peaceful Moslems, and they certainly exist, do not follow the violent, hateful, aggressive and supremacist doctrines of Islam. Yet, those doctrines, taught and preached in mosques and Moslem schools around the world, are there for all to see; and they will always produce scores of millions of Moslems who take them seriously. Any given Moslem might or might not be peaceful; but there is no question about the doctrines of Islam promoting violence. All of the Islamic sacred sources plus the most respected Islamic religious authorities say that Islam requires the "offensive jihad" for spreading Islam throughout the world.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:37 pm |
    • Tom Huskerson

      What you have written is probably true so I will not contest it. However this is the reason that I believe in God but reject religion. I cannot believe in a religion that preached such things as killing a person that dies no believe as they do. I realize you are pointing out what the Koran, Muhammad and the Ayotollah Khomeini have preached. But I do not believe any man who utters such claiming to be the spokesman of God. I refuse to believe that any God would thirst for the blood one who does not believe in a perticular form of religion. Nor do I believe that every Mosque would teach such things. Perhaps there people that believe in the literal word of the Koran and follow men who are unhappy unless there is constant war. The bottom line is that I question any religion that believe in the destruction of every person that does not embrace it. This cannot be a pillar of civilization. I for one support the building of the Mosque at Ground zero for a few simple reasons. The Constitution guarantees Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Gather Peaceably, Freedom of Association and Freedom to Petition the Government for action. In this case all these freedoms apply. I believe in allowing all ideas and voices to be heard and the truth shall be known. If we live in a world where you have the God given right to kill me if I do not agree with you then I would like to depart this world...as soon as possible.

      July 20, 2010 at 1:02 pm |
  6. Sleemium616

    The percentage of Muslims that are suicide bombers that have injured or killed civilians is statistically insignificant. Recall that the total number of Muslims worldwide is estimates at far more than one billion people. And what percentage of predominantly Christian nations has dropped a nuclear bomb on civilians during a time of war? 100%, the United States of America being the only one to do so. Related, one is far more likely to die in a car accident than as a result of an act of violent terrorism. It is more practical to fear wheeled vehicles traveling at high speeds than a Muslim mosque. My opinion is that all religions are annoying at best, and the cause of human extinction at worst.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:36 pm |
  7. Joe E

    This guy is a kook. He is trying to use Psychology to justify the end. Sorry it isn't that cut and dry. If your watching some troop walking down the street had such an effect on you buddy, you need to get a life and I mean really bad. You have some hidden issues to deal with. C'mon it was just a show now one cared about. Why do people try and put meaning into everything? Some time of course you have to. I don't agree with the mosque being where it is. However I am not sure you can stop it. Does their location have anything to do with being a sympbol for Islam? I am not so sure they are smart enough to even try and accomplish that. Who knows what they are thinking. Let them open and sick the IRS on them.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:35 pm |
  8. Abdulameer

    Everyone should take the 6 minutes to watch the video bhy the brilliant Britisher,Pat Condell, on the Ground Zero mosque. You can see it here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjS0Novt3X4&NR=1 or
    here: http://www.jihadwatch.org/2010/06/pat-condell-on-ground-zero-mosque-is-it-possible-to-be-astonished-but-not-surprised.html

    This mosque at Ground Zero should no more be acceptable than a monunent to the Nazi SS at our World War II memorial.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:35 pm |
  9. Sal

    This mosque would become a madrassa where people would be taught violence and a hatred for the United States. I hate this islamic religion and I don't trust these people! Their loyalty does not lie with the United States, but with a militant islamic religion! Already how many so called American muslims have plotted against the United States, quite a few if you don't know! Mohammed is evil no matter how you spell his damn name! NO DAMN MOSQUES ANYWHERE NEAR GROUND ZERO!

    July 19, 2010 at 9:35 pm |
  10. RandomDave

    As a Muslim, I see absolutely nothing wrong with building a Mosque at ground zero. I'm a U.S. citizen. I pay my taxes. It is discrimination, pure and simple. I never hurt anyone or killed anyone. I had a relative who died on 9/11 who was also Muslims. It wasn't just Christians that died. Our blood is equal to your blood. You have absolutely NO JUSTIFICATION. Your attacks on Islam are based on lies and ignorance. Quite frankly, I don't care what you believe, but the truth is the Taliban and al Quida are not followers of Islam. It's just a cult. They will kill anyone. Their affiliation with the word slam is merely to gain followers from uneducated backgrounds and to brainwash them to die for Osama's cause. Of course, the ignorant sheep can keep complaining all they want. The problem in this country is the complete lack of education on the topic of humanities. People are completely ignorant on religions and traditions other than what CNN and FOX News want to tell Americans.

    Al Quida and Osama Bin Laden are as much Muslims as Hitler was Catholic. Screaming the name of Islam while killing innocent men, women, and children does not make a person Muslim. They will kill anyone and everyone who does not bow to them. They are not fighting for God but for their OWN power. This has been obvious in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, etc. where they have literally been killing more Muslim men, women, and children than any non-Muslim.

    Thanks for reading.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:34 pm |
    • Janaki

      Let is make a deal ! A mosque in ground zero after a church/synagogue/hindu temple are built in Mecca.

      BTW, have you really read the quran? I have and there are plenty of verses that call for killing unbelievers.

      July 19, 2010 at 9:47 pm |
    • evensteven

      Thanks Dave. I am not a Muslim, but I'm convinced there are many hundreds of millions of good Muslims throughout the world

      If our country means anything, it stands for freedom of religious expression. Our country is not the exclusive domain of Christians and Jews. Building the Mosque would make a much needed and powerful statement to the Muslims of the world that we respect their right to worship as they see fit as much as we respect the Christian right to worship as they see fit–as long as those beliefs and subsequent actions do not infringe on the rights of others.

      Build the Mosque and let America make a statement of freedom and tolerance. This is the America I know and love.

      July 19, 2010 at 9:52 pm |
    • Janaki

      Since islam calls for destruction of people of other faiths and their submission, a ground zero mosque is not an expression of freedom but an expression of this core fascism, fanatism. Hence it must be rejected.

      July 19, 2010 at 10:03 pm |
    • gambino

      Random Dave, if you see nothing wrong with building a Mosque near ground zero, how about a teeny small Synagogue on the Temple Mount, right next to the Dome of the Rock Mosque inside Israel, that was BUILT RIGHT ON TOP OF THE JEWISH TEMPLE MOUNT? Dude, this arrogance, denial of logic is blinding you to whats right, polite, appropriate, sensitive, proper, etc. etc. You're a guest here man. This is a Christian country, founded on Christian values.After the mosque is built, slowly but surely, Jews will be accosted , threatened. And they'll leave, slowly, thats what happens in history. Guess what happens next? You got it.....pooof......NYC slowly disintegrates and you end up with a wasteland. Just look around man. Wake up. Nobody wants to be wrong, but can you afford to be that wrong? Build a mosque in D.C. or Michigan, why NYC? You copy? Of course you do, it's pretty basic to grasp. lol....AMAZING how selfish self centered people can be over "religion". Show some class, style, manners, deference , like you would expect of a guest in your home.

      July 19, 2010 at 10:04 pm |
  11. LL

    100 million dollars for this center ... raised by peaceful muslims. Yeah right ... with these clowns you have to be scared to disagree with these idiots.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:33 pm |
  12. TheRadicalLiberal

    I don't understand what seems to be the majority of peoples opposition to the idea of a mosque and ground zero. Your position only makes sense if you think that we are at war with Islam and that all Islam is to blame for the 9/11 attacks. If, like me, you believe that we are at war with terrorists and that terrorists, regardless of whatever religion they profess, were responsible for 9/11 then you would have no problem with it. Such bigotry and fear and hatred are a disgrace. They prove that we (or a majority of us) are no different than the terrorists which means that the terrorists have finally won.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:33 pm |
  13. Val

    You have to be kidding me, this guy must really have his blinders on.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:32 pm |
  14. Bruce H

    This mosque is nothing less than the footprint of a religion that plants mosques where its adherents have conquered the local populace, just as the Moors did in Cordoba Spain. The public explanations of the Muslims who say that the mosque is a tribute to the victims is false. Allowed to build there, they will gloat for years over their conquest of the business icons of the World Trade Center. We must not allow this particular place to be misused regardless of our tolerance. They have none. Why should we give in to them?

    July 19, 2010 at 9:31 pm |
  15. TareX

    It's not even a mosque... it's a 13-story community center with swimming pools, gyms, art galleries and conference halls. It just has a praying area for muslims.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:31 pm |
    • Val

      Including a prayer area for Muslims means excluding a prayer area for other faiths. NO THANKS keep this backward faith out of my country.

      July 19, 2010 at 9:34 pm |
  16. Ted G.

    My first comments were flagged, so this is what I will say... These guys dressed in black, the ones that want the building at ground zero. They are EVIL, and the guys dressed in white you know the ones who let those guys back in the holy land, they are just as EVIL.

    WAKE UP, the world is run by the wrong people. WE DONT CARE ABOUT GOD, WE DONT CARE ABOUT HATE. Lets all kill somebodies long dead idea, lets finally bury this stupid event of Human history. Religion? ARE YOU KIDDING ME HAHAHAHAHA

    July 19, 2010 at 9:30 pm |
  17. Jesus Cannabus

    You're all retarded. I'm moving to Mars.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:30 pm |
  18. exCONservtv

    You have to allow the mosque because this is America. Islam is the current mass religion of the uneducated like Christianity was not too long ago. Regardless, denying them is just one more loss of freedom on top of so many others. Lets just add banning all churches to our "Patriot Act". Our enemy vowed to take away what we loved most, our freedom. They've been willing the war right here! Ask yourself if you've abetted the enemy today?

    July 19, 2010 at 9:29 pm |
  19. LL

    The end must be near for this to be even considered and down right scary how easily people are deceived in my opinion. Religion of peace ... my oh my how mistaken.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:28 pm |
  20. Ted G.

    How does this work, because my comment is not showing up yet.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:27 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.