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. Rita

    No No No to a mosque at or near ground zero!!! The muslims say this wasn't an act of muslims, but of terrorists. I say it was MUSLIM TERRORISTS. Islam is NOT a peaceful religion – when have "moderate" muslims stepped up and condemned the actions of muslim terrorists? Not enough, and not hardly at all. NO to the mosque. One of the few (maybe the only time) times I have agreed with Palin.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:41 pm |
    • betty buaas

      Amen to Rita, you have expressed my sentiments exactly! Also those of many, many others,who need to speak up, Putting a mosque in Ground Zero would be like erecting a statue of Hitler at Buchenwald!

      July 20, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
  2. Wert

    It's good to see that there are still idiots in the world.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:41 pm |
  3. TS

    Excellent, excellent article! It's true we suffered a terrible attack on 9/11 – but what people need to realize is that we were *not* attacked by "Islam". Instead, it was group of ruthless terrorists who did the deed. It's very sad that some have taken the horrid acts of a few in order to fuel bigotry and prejudice against an entire population.

    Religious tolerance *is* supposed to be one of the key tenets of this country. Allowing this to go forward puts us on the higher road.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:40 pm |
    • nannimoe

      Islamic terrorists killed 3,000 people in the name of Allah. So my question too is where is the outcry from the "peaceful Muslim community" against these terrorists. It has to be because it's against their religion. All I can say is good luck finding construction workers to build this mosque. They will have to bring in Muslim workers to build it.

      July 19, 2010 at 9:10 pm |
    • Lola

      Australia has similar view of freedom as we do in the US.
      Here are some soundbites of views several perspectives (including some fundamental/traditional followers bashing moderate muslims) and then a pointed interview.

      Has anyone else watched this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1evjaYkdnQ

      July 20, 2010 at 12:08 am |
    • DearyPie

      You do have a very valid point about Muslims needing to be more outspoken against terrorist and their radical, flawed ideas of Islam. Simply making a small statement against terrorist actions, statements, or views is not enough. They should be marching in the streets voicing their disagreement against terrorists as they do Palestinian rights and issues. That is not to say that Muslims don't join their voices when a march is made against violence. The point is they need to do make themselves more vocal as a group in denouncing terrorist of their faith.

      July 20, 2010 at 1:57 pm |
  4. Tolerant Christian

    I say build the Mosque at Ground Zero when the Vatican breaks ground on a Catholic Community Center near Mecca. That'll be the day!! Some would like to see more fighting and animosity between Muslims and Christains because they hate all religions, but if Islam was half as tolerant and peaceful as these same folks make it out to be, then why not advocate more churches/Christain activity in Muslim countries. This would really help us get along much better. Why is this not possible, Sharia law demands death to anyone who converts to Christianity and in some countries carrying a bible will bring death.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:40 pm |
    • Lee

      Ahh I think your nickname is a misnomer. Tolerant Chrisian? You've got to be kidding.

      July 19, 2010 at 9:19 pm |
  5. Steve

    I am not for it. This disrespects the people that died in the 9/11 disaster. I am betting that if it gets built it wont last long. This is a very sensitive topic and it would be better to just build it somewhere else.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:38 pm |
    • Josh

      I agree. This building being there is going to cause nothing but problems. It will start out as tension and escalate to drastic measures before too long. As well as it being total disrespect for those who lost their lives and/or those who lost family/friends there, they will have to deal with some serious security issues on both sides of the fence.

      It's best built elsewhere.

      July 19, 2010 at 6:42 pm |
  6. Brian

    Let them name it the Nick Berg Memorial mosque.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:38 pm |
  7. Bill Maher

    Lets just ban all religion and any one caught openly practicing will be send to there god!

    July 19, 2010 at 6:37 pm |
    • T Tar


      July 19, 2010 at 6:40 pm |
    • the Marquis

      Laughter! T Tar calling someone on here a "moron".... ahhh, cracking me up over here. Regardless of which side one finds him or herself in this debate, T Tar's "contributions" have been, by far, the most moronic of all. Congratulations, T Tar, you have publically advertised your stupidity with a childlike charm. America salutes you.

      July 19, 2010 at 8:23 pm |
  8. T Tar

    would love a musliim to actually stand up and not be a COWARD. They hide behind women, they hide behind children, they can't stand in front and be seen. COWARDS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! wonder if Muhammad would agree with that, or was he a COWARD also??????????

    July 19, 2010 at 6:36 pm |
  9. terry

    Stephen may be a college graduate of religion but it seems that he does not have any understanding of the Muslem teachings. Their teaching says to destroy every person that disagrees with them and their leaders teachings. That is how this group of people has been for the last couple 1000 years, killing off people of other religions. Are you so simple as to think that now they are going to quite because you like them, or think they deserve a fair shake? Let them build a fort in the middle of New York and you will have a great meeting place for them to sit and share their ideas and plans. Isalm is not just a religion, it is a form of government using the rules of the Koran as it's rule book, and the Koran wants us all dead.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:36 pm |
    • temitayo

      If the koran really does tell its followers to kill all non-muslims, then can you please explain to me why the leading clause of death In America is from car-related injuries and heart disease and not from bombings?
      If you think you know so much about Islam and religion, could you please show me your certificate in religous studies? If you cant, then maybe you should stop watching T.V all day and try opening a reference book, you might learn something valuable.

      July 19, 2010 at 7:13 pm |
    • Heather

      Perhaps you need to research the Crusades...just saying.

      July 19, 2010 at 8:47 pm |
    • reen

      Heather, YOU should research Crusades, especially the beginning. Crusades was an answer to Muslim expansion. The official start was when the emperor of Bysantium asked Western Europe for help. Of course, over-zealous Europeans had their own selfish reasons and goals and ended up hijacking the cause. Nobody denies the massacre that resulted but lets not whitewash the Muslims here. They were expanding and advancing their own cause in the Middle Ages and they were doing it by the sword. Northern Africa as well - did not become Muslim by the word only.

      July 19, 2010 at 10:43 pm |
    • Stephanie

      Exactly, Terry. People are so worried about bring politically correct to know what the true intentions of this political organization are. This is not a religion. This is an organization that wants us all to conform to THEIR way of life or else.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  10. ja-mez

    How about no religious building? Especially not a mosque. Showing muslims how tolerant we are by allowing them to build one of their buildings is not going to make them more tolerant towards the US.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:36 pm |
  11. Michael

    As a soldier who has been through a few tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, I can say that I agree with the first postings...and that Elizabeth, you need to open your eyes and see the world for what it really is. I personally don't believe that the Qur'an is evil or it's teachings are wrong, but unfortunately it's message has been twisted and used for evil purposes...much like the Holy Bible has in the past. Every religion finds itself corrupted to ones plans of wrong doing, but its the uneducated and poverish that allow it. I would be all for them building a mosque anywhere but there. Matter of fact if you think about it, if someone wanted to build a Christian church near a site of significance for Islams, do you think they'd go for it...I think not. But we are in America where you have that right, no matter how insensitive and disrespectful your desires are to build in that area. But, you're still in America, and there will always be people like Elizabeth, and Obama, who will scold those who protest because they lost someone in those towers or in the planes at the hands of terrorists, who incidentally used the Qur'an to sway those to do evil.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:36 pm |
    • TS

      >>"if someone wanted to build a Christian church near a site of significance for Islams, do you think they'd go for it...I think not. "

      So you want us to be just like them? Think about what you're saying. If we truly walk the higher road, this should go forward with this plan; that is the point. Showing intolerance for other religions is the food for fundamentalists like the Taliban, and we should have none of it.

      July 19, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
  12. T Tar

    Daniel, with you.


    July 19, 2010 at 6:34 pm |
    • Frogist

      Hi Jones Foyer, Daniel, T Tar, please do an internet search for Dr Faiz Khan first responder, triage Rudy Ramadan or Salman Handani EMT. If you can throw these people in the same category as the terrorists, then you are black-hearted indeed.

      July 21, 2010 at 1:31 pm |
  13. joey

    muslims didnt do 911, mossad did.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:33 pm |
  14. T Tar

    and now look at the guest list at the whitehouse. just saying. was on public radio today. look it up.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:32 pm |
  15. Jones Foyer

    We need to realize that political over-correctness is weakening our ability to protect our borders and people. It's getting out of hand. I'm through being tolerant. When the international Muslim community posits these extremists as outsiders, then we can welcome Mosques at ground zero- but the general acceptance of their terrorist behavior by Muslim leaders worldwide and refusal for other Muslims to take a stand against their hatred puts me in the position to consider the whole religion an enemy to the United States.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:31 pm |
  16. Daniel

    This writer is an idiot. We are talking about people who celibrated when the towers came down. YEE YEE YEE! I watched every day after those beautiful buildings were bombed by "islamic terrorists" (that's right Obama I said it) and I watched how they call for the distruction of America and all Infidels tha did agree with them! Doesn't this guy and Obama get it? We are a "Christen Judeo Nation" and if another culture wants to join us, join us don't fight us for your own rights! Amen and "God Bless America"!

    July 19, 2010 at 6:30 pm |
  17. John

    I want to build a church in the saudi city of Mecca. Our services will be Friday and Sunday. We want to change the religion of Saudi Arabia.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:30 pm |
    • amyc

      John, there are no churches in Mecca because it is a theocratic state. The USA however has this thing called the Constitution and the Bill of Rights–in it we are given the freedom of religion. We are not at war with Islam. Terrorists come from all walks of life, from all religions, cultures and political ideologies. We cannot lump all Muslims into one group.

      July 20, 2010 at 1:20 am |
  18. T Tar

    NO WAY. NO WAY. NO WAY. the mulsilms that were killed, their families should stand up and fight against this extremism. It they don't then shame on them. When USA's borders were opened many years ago, the folks that wanted to come here did not kill us, now they do. Keep the NRA alive and let's protect ourselves.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:30 pm |
    • Hotlanta

      Right... the NRA is the solution to ALL our problems LOL

      July 19, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
    • Jaymo

      NRA supporters are an interesting bunch. They will find a discussion like this and put a statement in that somehow tries to tie what is happening to the threat (perceived or real) of the possibility of gun control of some kind. I guess I just don't get what they are doing other than trying to confuse issues and interject their name into EVERY conversation to keep themselves visible.

      And yes... I do own a shotgun and bought it legally and feel responsible gun ownership is just fine and dandy. I just don't see how the NRA applies to the building of a mosque near a site where planes were flown into buildings. Do you want the NRA to allow anti-aircraft artillery for citizens? Otherwise I see no connection whatsoever.

      July 19, 2010 at 7:42 pm |
  19. Josh

    Sorry, but this is insanity. It's a slap in the face to everyone who was a part of this tragedy, whether it be the people who lived through it or the families who lost their loved ones in the attack, it's not right regardless.

    New York will be making a huge mistake if they let this happen. I just hope they have the wisdom to keep them from doing this.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:29 pm |
  20. bob

    Sure – let them build it – but levy property taxes on religious buildings and properties just as with commercial buildings and properties. That would just about take care of all the idiot religious crap, whether islam, christian, or whatever. Frankly, strip clubs and casinos are less offensive (although pretty offensive) to me than mosques, churches, temples, and other religious sites. They're no different than private entertainment clubs, and should be taxed accordingly. And no – islam isn't peaceful and benign, nor is christianity, nor any other conscriptive mind-control ideology based on fairy tales.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:28 pm |
    • gama


      July 19, 2010 at 7:42 pm |
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About this blog

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.