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. al

    Most of you forget that christians did the same thing to the muslims...a little somethign called the crusades. We are no better or worse for what others of our religon did. Most Muslims are diswuisted at what happened. This is as much as their country as it is ours. If you are so ignorant that you can not allow a simple freedom than you are the answer to the age old question "what is wrong wiht America" You are

    July 20, 2010 at 10:50 am |
    • stinkysullivan

      You are loser!!!

      July 20, 2010 at 10:55 am |
    • Brad

      You apparently do not know history well. The "crusades" which have been villified over the years was only after the original crusade when the muslims came and originally raided Israel and took the land. The "crusades" where attempts to get the land back to the people and religion who were the rightful heirs to it. Muslims as usual started the violence and the christians responded. So please, the crusades were attempts to take land back from bloodthirsty heathens.

      July 20, 2010 at 10:59 am |
  2. stinkysullivan

    Rise Above you are a ding dong!!!!

    July 20, 2010 at 10:50 am |
  3. michael

    I, for one, haven't forgotten the cowardly attacks on New York City.I'm also trying to find out more of the background in the man wanting this there, and his past history. Not to mention, that they love to build their monuments where they feel they have a great victory in their cause.If the intentions of this, are so innocent where is the tolerance, and understanding on their part, to move it somewhere else?With all the lives lost in the attack surely, they can understand it shouldn't be there, if their intentions are truly innocent.I don't buy it, and I don't agree with the author on this matter.Build it somewhere else, and we all win, even the Muslim community. But since we have had attacks and attempted attacks from within our own borders, I think this is a bad move, to let it be built so close to ground zero.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:50 am |
  4. Marc Seltzer

    No one seems to tlak about 60 plus American Muslims who were victims of the September 11th attacks. What about honoring them? They were accused of being terrorists even in death in the aftermath. Their families still suffer the scorn of distrust from biggots.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:50 am |
  5. Vikram Chhabra

    I feel there is a need for reconciliation between the West and Islam. Both sides have committed terrible crimes in the name of religion and capitalist expansionism against each other. No side is less guilty. In the west it is fashionable to talk about Islam in a negative sense, just as it it is easy to talk about US imperialism in the Middle East.
    I personally believe that there is no difference between the Muslim Allah and the Christian God. I am neither Muslim, Hindu or Christian. The great Muslim Sufi saints of the past taught this. Religions are man made entities that have little or no understanding of great saintly teachings. They are just dogmas that preach fanaticism. Allah is just another name for the God who saves America. If people can rise above pettiness, they can understand this and would not be pushed to Xenophobic reactions such as what is being seen here.
    This applies both to Jihadi Muslims and Xenophobic Westerners who use all sorts of bizzare logic to support there underlying fears.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:49 am |
  6. Janice Rose

    DON'T YOU DARE! The idea is a Muslim insult after a horrific tragedy caused by them. NO WAY. America Wake Up! We are being overrun by political correctness.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:49 am |
    • SamBritell

      No, it was the actions of violent extremists who did the crime, not the religion.

      July 20, 2010 at 10:58 am |
  7. jerry

    this is a slap in the face and itsb an insult im not american but its totally rediculous

    July 20, 2010 at 10:48 am |
  8. John

    I think Stephen may have asked the wrong question. Is America at war with Islam??? No, America is not at war with Islam. However, perhaps the question should have been is parts of Islam at war with America. The answer to that seems to be a most definite "Yes". This nation was built on religious freedom, but that doesn't mean we have to ignore the fact others dislike/hate/detest/abhor the very concept of religious freedom and see that as reason to attack us. If we believe in religous freedom and the fundamentalist muslims believe there can be no religion but Islam.... where is the middle ground? Where is the chance for peace? Its troubling, but whether we like it or not we may be in a war of attrition and the only thing left to decide is whether we will give in before the people who attacked us. My personal feeling is that we should not give an inch and that includes no mosque/community center anywhere near ground zero.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:47 am |
    • Janice Rose

      It is just idealism that you would really be accepted here. Would we really be accepted in the Middle East? Of course not. Your place is in the Middle East – not in America.

      July 20, 2010 at 10:52 am |
  9. Mark

    @Akhan – maybe it was American foreign policy. Still does not give anyone or any group the right to kill innocent people–from around the world–who were in those buildings. You talked about forefathers. What forefathers are you talking about? I doubt they had people with your name in America during the Revolutionary War period. And yes, maybe we should ban all mosques. Or maybe all Muslims should pilgramage back to the Middle East and stay there.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:47 am |
  10. Richter

    The point of the matter is that if you build this Mosque, it well be viewed and interpreted by all Islamic terrorists as an accomplishment due to 911. They will see it as somerthing created from a direct consequence of their terrorist act, and it will make them more convinced they did the right thing.
    It makes no matter that others think, it's what THEY will interpret as
    They will rally behind it and convince more recruits that their faith and war is wiinning.
    Therein lies the problem
    How many American soldiers will die in the process?

    You didn't consider that, did you?

    July 20, 2010 at 10:47 am |
  11. flatcopilot

    The idea that Muslims are building this mosque to honor the 9/11 terrorists and continue terrorist activities is ignorant and offensive. The only thing that preventing the mosque from being built will do is show the Muslim community in general that we do not know the difference between the radical fringe of their religion and the regular practicing Muslims who are everyday citizens. Only ignorance would lead someone to believe that all Muslims are terrorists, but unfortunately a huge number of people believe this is the case.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:46 am |
  12. Justin

    CNN needs to quite allowing this guys post to their site. This is not about tolerance or religious freedoms, it's about respect for those who were killed or injured and the families whose kin were killed or injured on that tragic day. Personally I think the liberals new mantra should be "Ignorance is Bliss", as they choose to ignore the fact that a faction of the world, a very large faction for that matter, has declared war on this country, yet we want to pretend it's just a few bad people, grow up.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:45 am |
  13. Jay

    well we have seen so many times, that Mosque is used as a breeding ground for would be terrorist.
    Mosque has been used to recruit terrorist. People go there to pray and many end up as terrorist, we have seen this in so many case.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:45 am |
    • SamBritell

      And many Churches have given birth to terrorists as well. It's not the religion that breeds the violence, it's the people within the religion.

      July 20, 2010 at 10:56 am |
  14. SamBritell

    I am a Christian and I fully support allowing the Muslim community to build their Temple. May Allah Bring Peace To Us All!

    July 20, 2010 at 10:44 am |
    • Rob H.

      You are Christian in the closet I might say, I forgot the begining of your sentence as soon as I got to the end.

      July 20, 2010 at 10:46 am |
    • flatcopilot

      As another Christian, I agree wholeheartedly!

      July 20, 2010 at 10:47 am |
  15. John

    I'm ashamed we as Americans are such wimps we let this stuff even get considered...you all should be beaten for considering this...why don't you build them a war room so they can have a convenient place to meet while planning to kill some more Americans...oh wait, that's what they use the mosques for. Hi, I'm American...would you like me to bend over for you? no problem.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:42 am |
    • Eric G

      John, can you tell us your vision as to how America should be? I think we would all be interested in your views. Please don't forget to use the Constitution as the base. We will all await your reply. Thanks for your help!

      July 20, 2010 at 10:47 am |
  16. Rob H.

    Ahhh so sorry to be able to predict the future.... 100 years from now in a chinese schoolroom "The US empire selfdestruct from within" as part of history of the world and the Fall and Rise of Empires throughout the last 2000 years.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:42 am |
  17. kimberly

    I've studied Islam..and last time I checked it was not a very peaceful religion...just sayin. I think the "non-extremist" muslims are less true to what the Qu'ran actually teaches a muslim to be like. I know plenty of good people who call themselves Muslims but that doesn't mean they are following the true doctrines of this religion. If all Muslims were "by the book" we would be in bigger trouble than we already are.

    "Fight and kill the disbelievers wherever you find them, take them captive, harass them, lie in wait and ambush them using every stratagem of war.Qur'an:9:5

    "Our Prophet, the Messenger of our Lord, ordered us to fight you till you worship Allah alone or pay us the Jizyah tribute tax in submission. Our Prophet has informed us that our Lord says: 'Whoever amongst us is killed as a martyr shall go to Paradise to lead such a luxurious life as he has never seen, and whoever survives shall become your master.'"Bukhari:V4B53N386

    July 20, 2010 at 10:42 am |
  18. Astra

    Is ground zero sanctuary for those who were innocently killed or who those who were the killers..?? Somebody needs to get their facts or their loyalty for their country right!!

    July 20, 2010 at 10:42 am |
    • Astra

      Also, history is a witness..there have been mosques build on churches and hindu temples that were invaded and destroyed by muslims..it's actually sickening to my stomach to think that somebody actually suggested to build a mosque on ground zero.

      July 20, 2010 at 10:45 am |
  19. The Atlantean

    I believe in the right of religion and this is one of the main ideals of this country. The Pilgrims came to America for that reason. Restricting building an Islamic center or mosque at this location is anti-American. Let people worship as they see fit and that includes Muslims.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:41 am |
  20. Elizabeth

    I am against it because they would be destroying yet another landmark building to build it. Also, look at the Brooklyn Museum, which used to have a large 1st century Jewish display, and also a large Christian display. Now, upon entering the building there is a large display on Islam. (Notice that this is true across America in museums; yes, there is a movement to take over.) There was a Christian church at ground zero that was destroyed: St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which still has a website looking for dollars to rebuild. They can't get dollars as victims of 9/11 because they are not persons and they are not secular. But if the Christians can't raise enough money to build a church, where is the money coming from for a mosque? I do not care if you come from Harvard; where is your actual knowledge of religion based upon your religious convictions? Harvard's history is Congregationalist Puritan, Know-Nothings, anti-Catholic, anti-Orthodox, anti-Eucharist, anti-Christian.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:41 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.