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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. taketheblindfoldoff!

    Amendment I of the Constitution: CONGRESS shall make NO LAW respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof... Tell me how that leads to blind tolerance of a religion, legal, military, and geopolitical system based on the accounts of the life of a jealous, pedophiliac war chief that got kicked out of his Jewish tribe in the 7th century and built a following on the promise of war booty, virgins, and slaves? It is obligatory for "true Muslims" to lie to you (disbeliever), perform or support Jihad through fighting or Zagat (funding), and spread "the truth" and/or convert you. Look throughout history and you will find a mosque at nearly every successful military takeover or victorious battle Muslims have won (think Dome of the Rock...the Jews were there first). What's good for America is to understand what the enemy is...it is not terrorism. That is a tactic. That would be like being at war with linear ambushes. We are not at war with 20% of the Quran that teaches peaceful living and how to tolerate and live with non-believers. We are at war with the other 80% of the Quran and the Hadiths (legal/geopolitical system) that mandate by law and moral requirement death, heavy tax (50%), or conversion of non-believers, the return of Islamic law as supreme over all others (including our blessed Constitution which they use against us (religious tolerance)), and the return of the Caliphate. The Ummah (World-wide Muslim community) has been working on this for 1400 years. What's another couple hundred years to them? When will we as a nation wake up to what's really happening? The internet means we can no longer be passive isolationists. The oceans are not protecting us against this threat of ideas. The Ummah wants your money and/or your life whether you are Muslim or not.

    July 20, 2010 at 8:24 am |
  2. Jay

    I have no problem with a Mosque being located near Ground Zero. I'm not sure what the issue is and I am a Roman Catholic. I truly believe people worry about the things they can not control; and in America we each have our individual right to practice the religion we choose. In the end you should just be worried about your own beliefs, Roman Catholics are hardly ever perfect people just as anyother religion or belief! If all you worried about was love, the world would be a better place.

    July 20, 2010 at 7:43 am |
    • Thomas

      The issue Jay is that Islam is a terrorist religion. I DON'T CARE WHAT ANYONE SAYS. NOT A SINGLE PERSON IN THIS WORLD CAN SAY ISLAM IS GOOD, ISLAM IS NOT BAD. THAT'S A LOAD OF YOU KNOW WHAT. I WISH AND I MEAN I SERIOUSLY WISH ISLAM WAS GONE FOREVER ALONG WITH IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN. LETS GET OUR TROOPS OUT AND NUKE BOTH COUNTRIES. END OF TERRORIST END OF ISLAM. THE WORLD CAN GO BACK TO BEING NORMAL AGAIN

      July 20, 2010 at 10:51 am |
  3. John E.Hopkinson

    I will repeat this for the general audience;. mattd and lola have introduced a core issue here:. Look for their posts.

    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 7:09 am |
  4. Uwakwe

    I have a question; may someone help me with an answer: WHY IS VIOLENCE ALWAYS ASSOCIATED WITH ISLAM? This thought is reinforced by both historical Islam and today's Islam. May an Imam or Islamic scholar help me.

    July 20, 2010 at 5:17 am |
  5. Mark From Maryland

    I know it has been said before by folks that chances are smarter than I, but with this issue it is sorta a win/win and a lose/lose type of deal.

    Personally, its been almost a decade and the "go go get done" country should have had the tower(s) rebult by now. I could care less about a Mosque a few blocks away from Ground Zero. All this time I thought they were building a totally new building for the mosque now I hear that it is a old existing building ?!?!?

    Folks, if the building was standing before and during and after the 9/11 attacks then it does not appear that it is really "at" ground zero. Better for us to stop the terrorist from laughing ..... We should, by 2010 .... WE SHOULD BE LOOKING OUT OF THE TOP DECK OF A NEW WTC !!!

    The time and crud it has taken to barely have broken street level is a embarrassment to all of us Americans.

    July 20, 2010 at 2:46 am |
  6. smarter

    Well said.

    July 20, 2010 at 2:12 am |
  7. nycuws

    I work across the street from ground zero, literally watch the Freedom Tower go up day by day, and live in Manhattan. I love America and also wholeheartedly agree with the author. 9/11 still breaks my heart but it will only make me sadder if we let the terrorists scare or anger us into compromising the principles that make me proud to be American.

    We stand for the principles in our Constitution and abandoning them because we are scared or angry won't make us any safer, and will weaken us in the long run. We aren't at war with Islam, and banning mosques doesn't help our true war against violent extremism.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:46 am |
  8. Reality

    It is all about spouting more vitriol in yet another mosque by yet another imam stuck in the dark age myths of some mythical angel "giving" a warmongering, womanizing (11 wives) Arab named Mohammed directions on how to dominate the world in the name of Allah. None of dens of horror should be allowed

    July 20, 2010 at 12:16 am |
  9. BBEAR

    Well, I for one would like it if the groups who want to build this Mosque would listen to the concerns of the 9/11 victims' families and also to NY citizens, etc. I dont care if they want to put up a sensitive and peaceful memorial of sorts near the site or something, but I find it hard to believe that many Islamic extremists (or whichever is the best term) would love to worship there. There are many layers to this issue, read more about it than this article. There are some reports that the Imam who is helping fund this has ties to some shady articles (Provide some evidence BBEAR!, yada yada yada... Ill let you do the research) Also, enough of the religion bashing, geesh from all sides. Thats the great thing about America, you can read and learn any religous text you want and you dont have to take anyones word for it. Peace! we're all on the same side, just all a little crazy and ignorant (Including myself!)

    July 20, 2010 at 12:01 am |
  10. Chris

    I grew up in a town in New Jersey where the Twin Towers could be seen from a hilltop on a clear Fall day like 9/11. I am fortunate that my own friends who worked in the World Trade Center on that crisp September morning in 2001 all managed to evacuate safely. But several friends of friends and coworkers were not so lucky and lost their lives in New York, Washington, and a lonely field in Pennsylvania. Struggling to find out about what the h*** was going on in New York and Washington by radio, by internet, from passersby in the halls. Being on lockdown in the hospital to await potential casualties from the Pentagon. Then being told we could go home because there were no survivors at the Pentagon who needed to be evacuated to Baltimore. These memories all still elicit a knot in my stomach and a surge of adrenaline as I think about them today.

    But equally unsettling to me today is how similar memories of others have fomented such vitriolic hatred, reflected in many comments, for all peoples who choose to pray kneeling on a mat five times a day instead of kneeling on a pew in a church on Sunday. Our country was established to protect the freedom of people to live together peacefully and worship as they choose. Such freedom, not the phyical buildings of the World Trade Centers or the Pentagon, is precisely the target that the terrorists who attacked on September 11th had the aim to destroy.

    Some comments have suggested that permitting construction of an Islamic religious center so close to the reconstructed World Trade Center and 9/11 Memorial would be tantamount to handing terrorists a second victory to celebrate. I argue that it would do precisely the opposite by demonstrating that our country upholds its fundamental principals of tolerance and justice. Justice for the dead from 9/11 comes from pursuing the individuals responsible, not from treating all Muslims as culpable for the evil of a handful.

    Construction in New York City is fundamentally a secular issue since we have chosen to separate church and state in our country, but religion is inexorably linked here for obvious reasons. People continue to struggle to make sense of the horrible tragedy that occurred 9 years ago, and talk of construction of anything related to the religion espoused by the terrorists within 1000 miles of the WTC provokes a visceral response. But as I try to reflect on what principles have helped me decide on my opinion about the construction, I go back to what my sixth grade Sunday school teacher hoped was the one passage we all remembered from our preparation for confirmation. Amen, Sister Theresa.

    Matthew 5:1-16, 21-26, 38-48.

    When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

    “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

    “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

    “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

    July 19, 2010 at 11:51 pm |
    • Frogist

      Chris, that was truly beautiful. I am an agnostic but the poetry of the bible and these lessons to strive to be better than we are and to be kinder to each other than is expected, is something we can all learn from. Thank you for the reminder.

      July 22, 2010 at 3:23 pm |
    • kirk

      good post

      July 23, 2010 at 1:28 am |
  11. Tina

    Build a mosque, but not there. It has not even been ten years. Have some common sense.

    And it's interesting to see a Stephen Prothero's point of view, him being a liberal.
    I wonder if he has seen with his own eyes what they do to homosexuals and women there. Take a good look at their faces before they are executed for going against Islam. Watch their lifeless bodies hanging on the streets.
    See the marks of the lashes on their backs.

    I worked with Muslims. One woman coworker was beat up for not cooking her husband's meal properly. Her jaw is bent because he did not allow her to get medical help when he broke it.
    I know this happens in America too, but at least here the woman can take the thug to court. Not there.

    So call me intolerant. Yes, I am intolerant when it comes to this. I don't want this to be the future, simply because we want to send a message of peace.
    But this message is being sent at the wrong place and the wrong time.

    July 19, 2010 at 11:27 pm |
    • Frogist

      Tina, A lot of comments like yours just speak of how little confidence you have in America. America has been able to integrate so many cultures and religions over it's short history. Italian catholics, Irish protestants, Russian jews all made the transition from their worlds to ours. They maintained their cultures and were able to live peacefully with each other. Most of them live in NY right now. As do Moslems. What makes you think America will fall apart because the moslem community wants a mosque? That same woman who was beat up by her husband, may have had a better chance if she lived here. Because in this country we have laws that she could turn to. And a societal view that would show her that kind of violence is unacceptable. And a support system that would take her in if she needed to get away from him. But if we persist in saying she is not welcomed in this country by saying we do not accept your religion and inferring that she's a terrorist. She won't want to come here. If you wanted to help her, you would support the center. Because it means people like her will feel welcomed and safe enough to embrace our traditions along with theirs.

      July 22, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
  12. Joseph MA

    Not sure building a mosque is going to convince those who doubts America's religious tolerance credentials anything...

    But if this building is going to have 12 stories and many people think building a mosque near ground zero is needed to prove America's religious tolerance, why does it have to be just the mosque? Why can't we give one floor each for each major faith in the world? One floor for mosque, one for Church, one for Jews etc. Wouldn't that be more of a symbol of religious tolerance and coexistence?

    July 19, 2010 at 11:21 pm |
  13. Joe

    So many attempt to categorize Islam, the entire religion and all of its followers, as evil due to the acts of a small group of terrorists. We see so little of Islam in person except for the extreme acts shown in the news (i.e., the anti-American protests), and yet we feel we are educated. There are 1.57 BILLION Muslims in this world. Wouldn't there be a lot more violence if all of them hated America and sought to destroy our interests abroad?

    But yet, we are quick to denounce small groups of violent Christian extremists as being "outside of the norm" and not representative of Christianity (i.e., the militia group picked up in Michigan that had planned to kill law enforcement officers and go on a war against the US). We don't start fearing Christians as a whole. Michigan hasn't sought to ban Christian churches across the state. That is because we understand Christianity. We know it doesn't encourage violence.

    People like to cite verses from the Koran regarding violence against non-believers. I'm pretty sure similar verses exist in the Bible. And like we all know, you can't take a single verse out of context without bastardizing the entire meaning of text. Many Muslim scholars and leaders have openly denounced violence, especially against women and children. Do a simple Google search and you'll get your answer.

    So regardless of the merits of building a mosque at Ground Zero, do not attribute the actions of a few onto the whole. Yes, it would be wrong to let Nazis march in a parade with Holocaust survivors, but is it wrong to ban all GERMANS from marching in that parade? Obviously not.

    Should we be allowed to build Christian churches in their lands? Arguably yes. But then, they are Muslim nations. If we were a Christian nation, we would similarly ban all mosques and temples across the country. But we are NOT a Christian nation. We are a secular nation. Our founding fathers made sure of that. After all, escaping religious persecution by Christian England was what originally drove the Pilgrims to America.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:54 pm |
  14. reen

    Really, the question is one is Cordoba hung up on this particular building and this particular block for their Islamic Center. Please, build it ANYWHERE else in New York but respect the wishes of those family members that oppose it. To anyone who is not foolishly idealistic their stated intentions to be building interfaith bridges and practice tolerant Islam even if it rubs salt in the wounds of the family are very suspect. Aren't those intentions better served in another location? Isn't backing out of their plans due to respect for the families of the victims a better start to building "understanding"? Please, don't be fooled. Cordoba folk will be speaking honey to you in English but, should the mosque be built, it will be touted as a victory for Islam in Arabic.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:50 pm |
    • The White Knight

      What about the muslim families that lost their love ones during 9/11. Dont they have a say if they want a mosque built there. Most of you idiots on here are ignorant and don't know the real facts about Islam. You guys don't know what happens in a mosque. Have you guys every been in one? Have you tried to understand Islam with an open mind and not be narrow minded. And stop be judgmental.

      July 19, 2010 at 10:57 pm |
  15. M.M.

    To those saying "Would Muslims countries let us build churches if they were in our place?", well okay lets play your game. The Crusaders invaded the Middle East and spilled the blood of Muslims. To this day, from Egypt to Iran (except KSA), churches boast their crosses in the sky. There are large Christian minorities all over the Middle East; the same Middle East where the Christian Crusaders invaded and spilled blood.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:49 pm |
    • reen

      You mean to tell me Muslims didn't conquer Egypt? How did Islam spread there from Arabia then, could you tell me? Please, consult Wikipedia or whatever else if you wish. Northern Africa fell to Muslim invaders. Crusades were a (bloody, brutal, ruthless) response to the Muslim expansion that was threatening Bysantium and other Christian lands. Let us put the myth of unprovoked Crusades to rest. Middle Ages was a terrible time pretty much everywhere. There was no doves and if there were, their wings were clipped quite fast. And by the wasy, Egyptian Christian minorities is a leftover not from Crusades but from pre-Islamic times. Those Christian communities were greatly reduced during the Islamic expansion in the Middle Ages. Yours was a very uneducated post.

      July 19, 2010 at 10:59 pm |
    • S. Ali

      Muslims never forced people to change their religions when they took over territory in history. Perhaps you were referring to African Americans that were brought here against their will as slaves and forced to become Christians by their slave masters. Think about the relief Church groups provide after disasters strike around the world. They never do it because of the kindness of their hearts; they do it to convert the poor devastated people around the world. Look at Haiti after the earth quack, they poured in help, only to hide the underhand of their faith. The news only reports the help provided, not the true cost. For most, religion is a choice, but you have groups (missionaries) who only help because they have a hidden agenda. So before you say, Muslims force people to change into their religion, think again. Islam spread at such a high rate is because of choice.

      July 19, 2010 at 11:20 pm |
  16. Robbie

    Sorry Stephen,
    I believe about 70% of 'WE THE PEOPLE" that answered the pole said we do not want a Mosque built there. Comprende?

    July 19, 2010 at 10:49 pm |
  17. dayna

    I have to agree with Brandon. I'm also a christian and have many different people in my life. Some of my closest friends are Muslim. We can not allow the doings of a few extremists divide our diverse country.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:48 pm |
  18. The White Knight

    The Masjid will be built by ground zero.. you just got to accept it.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:48 pm |
  19. bellarosa

    To build a mosque near Ground Zero imaybe constitutional but is INAPPROPRIATE and INSENSITIVE. As such, it is an unskilful action and needs to be abandoned.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:48 pm |
  20. JJ

    Islam is an intolerant, anti-democratic, totalitarian ideology, like nazism, fascism or communism. Many mosques are being used to disseminate this ideology, brainwash and recruit for genocide. We must not tolerate this, otherwise the tolerance will be defeated (see Karl Popper's Paradox of Tolerance).

    July 19, 2010 at 10:47 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.