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. James Matters


    July 19, 2010 at 10:06 pm |
  2. charlie

    I live in New York City, not too far from the WTC site. I was directly affected by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I don't know how many of you commenting on this article can say that... if you can't, then you should come visit New York, walk from Canal Street to the WTC site, and take a good hard look at what you see. Because you'll see dozens of men on Canal street on their knees practicing Islam everyday. You'll walk by dozens of storefronts owned and operated by Muslim men and women. You'll be asked if you need a ride from a taxi driver who practices Islam. And as you step up to the site, Muslim business men and women are going to walk by you on the street. Know that Islam is being practiced EVERYDAY, right next door to the WTC site. Building or not building a mosque won't change that fact. Nor should it.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:06 pm |
  3. tommy605

    No religious buildings at ground zero, period. No mosque, temples, churches whatever else.
    Here's my analogy. It's like coming home to your wife one day, and seeing that she let her ex boyfriend, before you met her, move into the basement of your brand new built house. Now sure, she's your wife, and it's your house, but you know what he's thinking. And yes, he's right to be thinking that.
    I'm not saying stopping mosques from being built, but no way no how should any place of religious worship be put up at that location.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:05 pm |
  4. Notsocrazy

    What next, a tribute to Hitler next to the Lincoln Memorial?

    July 19, 2010 at 10:05 pm |
  5. Scotty

    I disagree with the premise that we are not at war with Islam. Clearly we are at war with Islam. Islam isn't a book or philosophy. It is a group of people with similar beliefs, both religious and political. We were attacked by people in the name of Islam. We are at war with Islam.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:05 pm |
  6. OIL of arabia ISLAM

    Let’s look back and see how this country has been built...before the 40's the USA was economically very bad. After the oil started to flow west cheaply the US took off to become the strongest economy in the world...where is it all coming from The Arab Muslim.
    Islam has helped your country alot especially during the cold world...Afghanistan(defeated USSR) and Saudi and others kept the oil flowing west cheaply to help your country fight THE USSR from spreading east and west and all directions.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:02 pm |
  7. Scott

    Amen, Stephen.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:02 pm |
  8. Michel

    I'm a little perplexed. I was there, not in the towers but one building away. I can remember hearing the crash, I can remember leaving my building with papers flying in the air and screaming and awe in every direction. I remember it like it was yesterday. But do I think it's a disgusting act of disregard if a mosque is built within the vicinity of Ground Zero?? Well, let me see, should Germans not visit Israel? As a black man in New York should I take offense when a white southerner moves in to the house next to me? Get over yourselves people. As cruel and horrendous as 9/11 was, I still understand that it was the act of individuals that created this incredible act of destruction not the act of an entire religion. How many of you have Catholic friends? Have you disengaged from them because a few of their priests have violated the innocent? How many of you have Jewish friends? Have disengaged from them when an innocent Palestinian child died from a tank shell? We have got to put this into perspective. I mean come on......

    July 19, 2010 at 10:00 pm |
    • Mainehunter

      Michel, your delirious. Germans visiting Isreal? How about building a shrine to Hitler and placing it in downtown Jerusalem. You f'ing moron.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:06 am |
    • Raymond Sumner

      Your metaphor to Germans and Southerners is incorrect. Allow me to present a accurate analogy: As a black man would object to the Klu Klux Klan opening an office next to your home? Or do you think the Jews in Israel would object to a Nazi recruiting office in Jerusalem? This issue is not about tolerance or religious freedom but rather about respect. When do we start to respect those that lose during this tragedy?

      July 20, 2010 at 10:27 am |
    • Frogist

      Hi Michel, I appreciate your perspective and it's kind of a mystery why the people who responded to your post don't rethink their position after reading this. I think too many people here are stuck in fear. This center could do a lot to dispel that distrust. We have to give it a chance, because we don't have a good reason not to. After all, just because something feels uncomfortable to us doesn't mean it's wrong. It just means we're learning something new. It's time we did more learning and less reacting.

      July 22, 2010 at 1:28 pm |

    I don't believe all Muslims are bad, anymore than I believe all Christians are good. Mass hysteria is what is blocking clear thinking about this controversy. I think a mosque should be at Ground Zero - but it should include a synagogue and a church as well.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:58 pm |
  10. Raymond Sumner

    Can we stop this liberal nonsense? Enough is enough with considering the feelings of the Muslims. Allowing a mosque to be built at ground zero is like allowing a convicted rapist to put up a billboard with a picture of himself outside the victim's house! Or a child molester putting up a picture of himself outside the school where he/she attends! Has this author lost his mind? Has the whole country lost it's mind? To even be discussing this is insane! We're not saying they can't build a mosque we're just saying that they should respect the bereaved. Does the author even think about considering the family's of the victims? Are liberals insane?

    July 19, 2010 at 9:56 pm |
    • John

      I consider myself a liberal but no way would I like to see a mosque at ground 0. Hell no!!

      July 20, 2010 at 12:01 pm |
  11. steve

    Well put. Build the mosque and let all the thousands of peaceful and law abiding Muslims who live or commute to Manhattan feel that they belong in this wonderful country.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:55 pm |
  12. Alfredo

    The lovely folks responsible for 911 are simplistic brainwashed religious extremists that will see this as a victory for their Jihad. They destroy the symbols of America and we build their mosque, unbelievable that this is even being considered. Build the mosque in Queens, or Harlem but not near ground Zero. I used to shop at Burlington Coat Factory(the mosque location), you know why the area is so dead because 911 even killed retail sales too thus enabling that building to become vacant and readily available for a Mosque. Sweet victory to Bin laden. If you allow this monstrosity to be build all the Jihadists will claim victory.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:52 pm |
  13. ML in Abington, PA

    But this is what makes us Americans. We don't measure ourselves by the lack of freedom in other cultures, we measure ourselves by a document created by our Founding Fathers 223 years ago; the US Constitution. I don't care if Islam is flawed. I don't care that we can't erect a Baptist church in Mecca. What matters is that we measure ourselves against the document that guides us. Did you know that Jefferson and Madison were practically atheists? They both had great reservations about religion and its influence on our Constitution. Let them build their mosque. So what? If you judge them and push our Constitution aside to accommodate your petty bigotry, you are not an American. Swallow that.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:52 pm |
  14. Jon

    Everyone close your eyes, block your ears and repeat after me, "Islam is a religion of peace, I will not read history or watch the news.".

    Seriously, showing people who hate us how much we can love them teaches them nothing and weakens us in a war we try our best to pretend isn't happening.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:49 pm |
    • Thomas


      July 20, 2010 at 11:00 am |
  15. RandomDave

    Abdulameer – just to point out, the quotes you presented are taken here completely out of context. The text where it says to kill or fight is in the name of defense – under persecution. Instead of copying and pasting text out of context from a hate site, I invite you to read the Koran.

    Verse 2:62
    Those who believe (in the Qur'an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.

    As a Muslim, I have no right to judge you and decide whether you will go to heaven and hell. To me, your fate does not depend on whether Christ died on the cross. I don't believe he died for your sins. I believe that you are responsible. Those who believe in God and judgement day are God's people as long as they don't cause death and destruction and do good deeds. Judging you is useless, because I don't know my own fate. My deeds are more responsible for my fate than simply saying that Mohammed is a prophet of God or praying 5 times a day.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:48 pm |
    • Egghead

      Yes, indeed! I invite you all to read the Koran, too. And, the hadiths. And the seminal Muslim book called Milestones which sets out the Islamic plan to conquer the world. Then, read the book called Infiltration – about the Islamic plan to conquer the West. Then, read Jihad Watch or Atlas Shrugs websites for current updates about the success of Islam in the West.

      Oh, and while you are reading the Koran, notice how the Koran "reveals from Allah" that Muslims are far superior to non-human infidels, and that Muslims MUST forcibly convert, (gang) rape, humiliate, tax or kill the infidel – whichever is easiest at the time. When reading about Mohammed, ask yourself if Islam's model man Mohammed's actions are better or worse than those of Adolph Hitler?

      July 20, 2010 at 3:19 am |
  16. oahumike

    of those here in favor of building the center, the argument is "christianity has history rooted in some form of violence, therefore it is ok to build the islamist site."

    like all liberal thought and conclusions, this logic is completely flawed.

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

      Um, that's not remotely the arguments I read being made. Our country was based on ideals of religious freedom and the strong belief that government should not be telling people what religion they can and cannot practice. People who don't want the government interfering in their lives should not want the government deciding which churches a property owner can build on his property. A person of normal intelligence should recognize that such principles only mean something if they apply to people of different faiths as they do to people of your faith. So, if you think the government should not be able to say whether your congregation should be able to build a Chrisian church on your property, you should feel the same way about a Moselm congregation wanting to build a mosque on their property.

      July 19, 2010 at 10:11 pm |
  17. LenB

    I say let 'em build a mosque there – but with one condition – a one way door leading to a long tunnel to the middle east.

    July 19, 2010 at 9:46 pm |
  18. Suboptimal

    I'm neither American nor Muslim. I have many Muslim friends and try to be respectful of religious and cultural practices because my parents (Christians) were also immigrants to a western, Christian country that wasn't entirely accepting of their cultural origin (being on the axis side of WWII). I can sympathize with Muslims, the majority being peace loving people who are being unfairly grouped with extremists. Their contribution to the fabric of any civilized nation should not be understated. Having said this, I completely detest the 12th century oriented nature of religious and cultural zealots most often described as hard-core Muslims along with the nations they emanate from. It's true that most religions have traversed violent and domination-minded periods in their history, as have various countries and political dogma's. So many people have died defending freedom (in its various forms), that we cannot allow ourselves to slip into the psychotic paralysis that hateful people and nations preach. We should be respectful to people and nations that have to defend their dignity and rights, which is typically cast in the majority. Let's remember that the United States and various other aligned nations, for all their identified domineering attitudes at times in their history, have saved the world from tyranny more than once. While the rights exist to support the building of this mosque, is it practical?

    July 19, 2010 at 9:46 pm |
  19. doctorc

    Sir, what kind of poison have you been smoking lately?

    July 19, 2010 at 9:45 pm |
  20. Randy M.

    All I have to say is HELL NO!

    July 19, 2010 at 9:45 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.