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. riverrunner

    The enemy is religion itself. no mosques, churches, temples. i propose a library.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:46 pm |
  2. S. Ali

    I find the reactions posted by most people on this site to have no knowledge of how America was built. Too many of you forget who your ancestors were and why they came to America, when they were burned to death because of their own religious beliefs; they came running to this great land. Now, so easily you all forget what makes our great nation such a great place to live. Would you all speak with the same tongue if some Christians committed 911? Would you be so intolerant of a Church being built near the site? No you would not. Since 911 the mass media (mostly Foxnews) has portrayed Muslims and Islam as a terrible sin. Like little brainless goons, you all have taken it all in and completely forgot about what these terrorist have set to accomplish- to change America so that it will no longer be a great nation. Think about what you say before you say it, think back at where your family came from, think about why we call this a great nation. This is a free country, not some European nation where people let their emotions overcome their sense of reason and compassion.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:34 pm |
    • Thomas


      July 20, 2010 at 10:54 am |
  3. Wandashmeik

    Does this mean Muslims should prohibit building churches in their countries as well as in Iraq and Afganistan? By this hate to Islam we give the radicals in both sides what they need to flourish terrorism. We should show the whole world that USA is the land of freedom. The outspoken fanatics should realize that after 9 years of war against Islam, Islam is spreading and more people are interested to read about it. The more we insult Muslims and Islam the more they unite.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:32 pm |
  4. Frank 11

    If I were a "radical Muslim" I would use this mosque as the best recruiting symbol for murder and terrorism that there could be. "We destroyed the ultimate symbol of capitalism and have replaced it with a mosque. When we show such strength the West crumbles and crouches in fear. They think this mosque pacifies us but it only emboldens us. Wherever we destroy symbols of the west and capitalism, a mosque will be built." Allahu Akbar.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:28 pm |
  5. Zubi

    Interesting take on madarassas. 17 of the 19 9/11 attackers did not attend a madarrassa. Atta (the leader) was an architect by profession – privately schooled, attended the Cairo university (secular and often at odds with Jamiah Al-Azhar), and then was sent to a school in Hamburg, Germany. Which leads me to conclude that all German artistic schools graduate mass murderers (Hitler), or talented suicide bombers – the evidence here is beyond doubt.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:27 pm |
  6. Declanmcman

    The bottom line is that the owner of the property wants to build a building that includes a mosque, and the government has no business telling the property owner whether his religion is "acceptable." Do you really want the government to have that power? What happened to the great belief in limited government?

    July 19, 2010 at 10:25 pm |
  7. nadeem

    Hey- how far is it supposed to be? 3 blocks? no wait, 4 blocks? No, wait, not sensitive enough...OK, not lower Manhattan...no, someone still offended...OK not Manhattan! Yes! Jesus, it's called "freedom of religion" and last I checked, can be practiced anywhere we damn well please. 9/11 is NOT more sacred than the Constitution.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:23 pm |
  8. Argwings

    A mosque at ground zero will be a celebration of mission accomplishment to the terrorists and their sympathizers which may end being built regardless of our revolt. It’s too late to establish order in our country; prayers and reading of bibles were forbidden in the name of freedom and same freedom will constitute electing this eyesore building.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:22 pm |
  9. EJ

    Reading these posts completely explain the flaw with religion in general. Tolerance is okay unless it goes against your religion. Violence is not okay unless it furthers the religion's agenda. Every religion has had a period of violence, yet most do not condone it. How can people blindly follow something in which it was created through ideals that it considered immoral?
    Most religions basic teachings aren't even followed with their highest leaders. If anything religion should be a synonym of hypocrisy.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:21 pm |
    • S. Ali

      Nicely said

      July 19, 2010 at 10:40 pm |
  10. Notsocrazy

    So is the issue they cannot find any other lots availabe in Manhattan? Of course this is all based off the crazy Government version of events on 9/11, that the U.S. was 'attacked'. When in fact the real truth of the matter enabled Bush to change the course of his presidency.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:21 pm |
  11. M.M.

    Of course it would be wrong to build ANYTHING on top of ground zero. Thing is, the mosque isn't being built on top of it, its being build blocks aways from it. So what is the problem? To say that building a mosque near ground zero will remind people of al-Qaeda, or something along those lines, is saying that all Muslims are terrorists. A mosque, specifically this one, does not preach terrorism. Nor are all Muslims terrorists. In fact, by building this mosque, the Muslims are saying that they are not with the terrorists. So if you think that, you are narrow minded because you have to understand that Muslims don't stand for the crimes of 9/11 nor do they support terrorists. Again, if the mosque was being built on ground zero, then we have an issue, but it's not, so there really is no problem.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:21 pm |
  12. Native New Yorker

    To assume building a Mosque near ground zero is disrespectful is only a show of one's own ignorance. Assuming such a notion is to assume that all Muslims are radical Muslims, or to blindly believe ignorant, racist notions that all Muslims harbor terrorist intent.

    I was born and raised in the boroughs of this city. I have grown up with Muslims. Never once have they threatened me or try to shove their beliefs down my throat. Seeing such ignorance expressed in so many of these posts angers me.

    The USA touts itself for its religious freedom. Let it exemplify it.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:20 pm |
  13. JS

    At least we know the site won't be blown up again...Unfortunately I'm a female thus I won't be able to walk where my grandfather helped build his last project before retirement, or where my dad, a WWII and Korea vet took me to visit as a child. That is because I'm a lower class citizen all of a sudden and not allowed in the mosque in the same area where men go. Unreal, absurd, and another clever disquise of hate under the name of 'religion.' It is the same 'fear' and turning a blind eye that the Germans experienced and hence allowed Hitler to power...and we say "How could that happen?" ....well...it is happening all over the globe. I read that the stoning and killing of the Iranian female for a purported affair was an 'incident.' Since when are 'incidents' murder? The answer is 'never' when hiding behind 'religion.'

    July 19, 2010 at 10:20 pm |
  14. Rose

    Silly, silly people – live in a muslim land and you will see, the average muslim HATES the west.... the hatred is very real and very dangerous. Don't be fooled guys..... you have no idea.....

    July 19, 2010 at 10:19 pm |
  15. Cloud9

    Absolutely ludacris. How bout we go build a walmart on their temple of the mount and see how they take it. I assure you it wont be with comments on CNN.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:15 pm |
  16. 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 there are rights that allow the freedom to practice religion, is it practical that any singular place of worship be built so close to ground zero?

    July 19, 2010 at 10:15 pm |
  17. johnny

    I am definitely a liberal. And I've always loved how republicans think that is calling us a bad name. It is a derivative of liberty which is what this country was founded on. But I do not believe there should be a mosque built there. Regardless of the islamic radicals who destroyed that location, the Muslim religion is oppressive in nature. Not all muslims are terrorists for sure, but again the very fiber of their belief system and religion is built upon oppression and intolerance.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:14 pm |
  18. Ryan

    I'm curious how many of the commenters here have friends or love ones that are Muslim. It's a bit more difficult to condemn an entire religion, followed by two billion people, to perfidy when you have some firsthand knowledge of them.

    Saying that Islam is a "flawed" religion because a miniscule minority commit unspeakable acts of violence is to ignore that other faiths have their own sordid traditions of terrorism. Saying that Islam is a "flawed" religion based on elements of the Koran, written thirteen hundred years ago, that endorse violence is to ignore the violence endorsed by the Jewish Bible twenty-six hundred years ago or of Catholic theologians nine hundred years ago.

    A mosque in the vicinity of the World Trade Center–and I say this as a New Yorker who lost more on that day than most commenters here could imagine–does nothing to disparage the memories of those who died any more than the numerous Christian churches in Jerusalem disparages the memories of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims slaughtered seven hundred years ago. You cannot ignore two billion people, many of whom are angry at us for reasons we can't even fathom, and hope they go away. Engagement, on the macro and micro level, is the only way to move forward into a safer future.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:11 pm |
    • John

      Minuscule???? Minority??????? PFFFT you have got to be kidding me. In that line of thinking it is the same to say that there is a peaceful version of koran and a radical version of Koran. This simply is not true. Wake up. This type of ignorance is exactly what is wrong with America.

      July 19, 2010 at 10:21 pm |
    • riverrunner

      all religions are seriously flawed. better?

      July 19, 2010 at 10:49 pm |
  19. efpefp

    don't any of you realize that traditionally the muslims erect a mosque wherever and whenever they have conquered a someone? Check it out if you dare.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:07 pm |
  20. Leon

    The guys right, we are NOT at war with Islam. And we're not at war with terrorism, either.
    We are at war with Radical Islamists.
    When the Islamic world stands up and shouts down what we can only hope are the minority radicals, than let 'em build whatever, wherever.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:06 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.