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. Akhan

    Islam did not cause 9/11. Those who crashed into the towers were GUERILLAS, who were provoked by an AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY which is unjust and imperialistic. Islam is a scapegoat in all of this mess, created as such because Americans tend to be DIMWITTED. Believe it or not folks, 9/11 is simply a repercussion of an ARROGANT foreign policy. So, now lets start banning mosques from being built, because that sounds like the American way to me. Oh what our Forefathers would say if they could see us now...

    July 20, 2010 at 10:40 am |
  2. ungachaka

    The day the music died

    July 20, 2010 at 10:40 am |
  3. Mike H

    I cant believe they are actually considering building a mosque there. Building a mosque there will be a victory in Jihads, Al-Quada, Taliban and all the other terrorist groups eyes. They shouldnt build any religious structures there. Its like spitting in the face of all the 9/11 families faces.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:40 am |
  4. Guest

    To pay our respects to all the 911 victims there should be a piece art at ground zero. I am sure every religion will visit that as of their own praying place including Islam.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:39 am |
    • Guest

      you mean "peace art"

      July 20, 2010 at 10:41 am |
  5. Mark

    This is ridiculous. Building a mosque at Ground Zero is like spitting on the proverbial "grave." You can make a case of religious tolerance by letting the mosque be built there. Or, you can make a case that the terrorists have won. They destoyed the WTC and as a prize, they are building a mosque with a golden roof on top of the site. What's more, extremists will likely congregate there and plot out additional attacks. Then who will have the last laugh. This article/opinion is idiotic at best.

    Let it be built. It won't last long. Wouldn't be surprised if an airplane hits it once it is erected.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  6. dave

    LOL we cannot let the terrorists undermine the values of the US....so lets not rebuild anything as we have been doing and then when we are going to build something, lets build something symbolic of their culture on our land. ARE YOU NUTS!? Rebuild the damn towers, maybe a bit differently, but rebuild something we can take pride in, not have shame in. You just want something build there as a taunt to extremist muslims and say, oh yeah, topple this mosque over...i dare ya. Problem is, thats cutting off the nose to spite the face. Plus, you are from boston university. LOL I dont need a reminder that we are not at war with a religion and Im tired of this nonsense to cater to all but our own. I need a reminder THAT IM A DAMN AMERICAN

    July 20, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  7. DrCarrington

    I thought the laughter was coming from BP executives.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  8. Larry

    I'm wondering if you would feel the same way had it been one of your relatives who perished in the crash. There's nothing wrong with building mosques elsewhere in the city, of course, but out of respect for the many people who's loved ones died at the site there is little need to try to force their forgiveness and acceptance. Again, try to put yourself in their shoes.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:38 am |
  9. DrCarrington

    Ok...but can we also have a statue of Christopher Hitchens erected in Mecca?

    July 20, 2010 at 10:37 am |
  10. John Grame

    Since when do we care who is "laughing" at us – what are we in 6th grade? We care if what we're doing is right not if we will be laughed at. Stupid and ignorant people always laugh at what is right and especially what they don't understand. Let them laugh. People laugh at me when I cover my ears to the subway screeching loudly on the tracks – should I stop?

    July 20, 2010 at 10:36 am |
  11. frederick lee

    This type of reasoning is what Ted Turner meant when he said: "Christianity is a religion for loosers."

    July 20, 2010 at 10:35 am |
    • Frank SMith

      He was right though – it kind of is – or at least a religion for simple minded people because Christianity shys away from questions and debate – very close to Blind Faith whereas in some other religions for example they encourage heated debate and questions and more questions.

      July 20, 2010 at 10:41 am |
  12. Jeff Ryan

    I think a place for prayer and reflection that would serve all denominations would be a reasonable alternative.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:34 am |
    • amen

      agreed-in fact, in the Freedom Tower there should be a tribute to all the large religions of the world by having a mosque, a temple, a church, hindu and buddhist temples etc.

      July 20, 2010 at 10:37 am |
  13. Al in Fla

    I haven't noticed that People leaving the U.S. for the Middle East with intention of fighting U.S. forces and engaging in "Jihad" were originating in Cathedrals, Churches, Shuls or Buddhist monasteries.

    Islam is, by its very nature a warlike religion and a very intolerant one at that.
    Why provide a base of operations right next to the site of one of their greatest atrocities ???????

    July 20, 2010 at 10:34 am |
  14. Patriot

    Stephen – your'e an idiot.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:31 am |
  15. amen

    This truly is the land of the free, where mankind can flock to America's shores and be granted refuge, whether political or religious. Given that notion, religious freedom is essential to American society and Americans need to be tolerant in order to propel that ideology. I firmly believe that a mosque (or temple, or church, etc.) should be allowed to be built where ever it can be (even if it is near the WTC). Additionally, religious fanatics are responsible for the terrible tragedy that faced American on 9/11-they just happened to claim that they did it in the name of Islam (which evidences that they were misguided as Islam bans that type of behavior). In turn, we are not at war with Islam and the Muslim people, but rather a handful of misguided, radical, and dangerous minority.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:30 am |
  16. Methusalem

    These days, the media doesn't tell us the truth about what's going on. I used to work with an interreligious group in the UK
    For instance, the media permanently talks about the adoption of Islam by many British people. Muslims make an almost triumphant image of Islam in the West. However, the real number of British in the Muslim population is very small, only around 1200 people.

    The presence of mosques in the UK is very weak. Most Muslims won’t ever go to a mosque. The young people have effectively left Islam, even if they say that they’re still Muslims. In the mosques they don’t find a common language with the Imams from Pakistan or Bangladesh. Young people can barely speak Urdu or Bengali but only English.

    Many are ashamed of Islam because of terrorism. Our inter-religious council investigated mosque attendance and we know what the real picture is and it is especially alarming for Islam, but it is to the advantage of certain people to present Islam as an immense force.

    If one takes the list of mosques in Muslim publications, for example, in West London, we find that there are twenty mosques and much free space in each of these mosques, even though the number of people of Muslim origins in London is such that they would need even more mosques if a majority went. In one large mosque in London there might be three hundred people for Friday prayers. Many mosques are just small halls that are only used on Friday. In general, believers are very rare in mosques and most are children who bring their parents. When they grow, they disappear. Christianity offers a free choice, thus it is much better adapted to life in a climate of tolerance, and Islam is unable to pass this test.

    I don't see why one would need a Muslim temple anywhere in New York, or the US, for that matter!

    July 20, 2010 at 10:19 am |
    • Kumar

      Muslims dont call their place of worship as temple... only Jews, Hindus & Budhists do ...

      July 20, 2010 at 11:01 am |
  17. Paul F

    Ground Zero should be a memorial to all of the men and women who perished in the 911 attack, period. If certain factions of Islam wish to participate in a healing process (and they all most certainly do not), they should be encouraged to do so.

    These "non-extremist" factions have not earned the right to be honored at a Ground Zero memorial site. Given the fact that Islamic extremist factions were behind the 911 attacks, placing a mosque at the site of ground zero is inappropriate and obscene. Mayor Michael Bloomberg should be ashamed of his poor judgment and lack of leadership in supporting this.

    Let the healing process continue. It will take time. A non-denominational center for faith-based dialog would make much more sense for this memorial. Placing a mosque on this burial site will only serve to polarize New York City and the nation further.

    We need to nurture understanding among Muslims, Jews, Christians and other religious groups. There will be many opportunities to achieve this. Ground Zero should remain a memorial to the victims and a celebration of their lives. That should be the single focus for this site.

    July 20, 2010 at 9:33 am |
    • jmase

      I think you are right. No mosque would be the best idea.

      July 20, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  18. morton

    My objection to the building of a mosque near Ground Zero is based on the simple fact that its potential for controversy and unrest far outweighs any benefits it might bestow. It is certainly constitutional, tthat's rue. But given the contemporary track record of terrorists associating themselves with Islam (although not all Moslems are terrorists), there is certainly a need for discretion and sensitivity in exercising this constitutional right. So let's tread cautiously and not be naive.

    For illustration, let's say I am a wealthy parent and have ta few children who wish to borrow money from me. Naturally, I'd be cautious with lending money to the child who has a RECENT record of abusing my genrosity. That's all. It's that simple!

    July 20, 2010 at 9:18 am |
    • Chandra

      Really Its that simple. Hatred is that simple?

      July 20, 2010 at 10:40 am |
  19. nachooooo libre

    Why isnt some asking ... "Why do you want it there"?

    July 20, 2010 at 9:09 am |
  20. Michael

    America is a soft nation of political correctness. They don't let anyone exercise any religion but their own in their "countries". They have no tolerance or respect for our culture. This isn't a two way street. I say this with as much objectivity as possible, being so passionate about this. Granting this only emboldens them in their quest. They want to open it on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. What an insult, what insanity. By not doing this doesn't make us closer to terrorist, but keenly aware of their motives, agenda, and principles and how it will not be tolerated.

    July 20, 2010 at 8:57 am |
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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.