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. Ali

    No one in their right mind should even consider building a mosque so close. It is a slap in our faces. Would we be allowed to build a synogogue or a church in muslim country. It's about time the United States got some backbone and stopped giving everyone rights to everything. It's unbelievable. Too many rights are going to ruin this country and it is too great to let that happen.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:01 am |
  2. John

    It is also a security issue. It will be a target for extremists on both sides. Unless a building serves a financial purpose for the city that is not based on race, religion, national origin or sex, it should not be erected so close to the site.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:00 am |
  3. Chris

    The Mosque will be two blocks from the World trade Center site. So would four blocks be OK or 10 Blocks? Do you see the silliness of this argument? If building it 10 blocks away were OK then why not 5 or 2? Also what about the gentlemen’s clubs (AKA strip clubs) near the world trade center site? They are there? Or the Hookers that work around there? Aren’t they a disgrace to the site? These arguments have no merit. So why do we deny religious freedom for the Mosque, but then as a nation everyday say to the world we have religious freedom in this country? We can’t have both ways

    July 20, 2010 at 11:00 am |
  4. Berry

    They should not be allowed to build a Mosque in a country where christain values are predominantly the life style of the people. Let them allow us to build a church in Mecca before we even consider their request. They should never build a Mosque on Ground Zero. That would be a victory for terrorists.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:00 am |
  5. Mr. Davidson

    We already allowed them to excavate the old WTC with airliners used as bombs and/or implosion by detonation,so now let them build.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:57 am |
  6. Lionel Balasuriya

    This guy is so naive and stupid. This mosque should never be allowed to be built so close to the 9/11 destruction site. Try carrying a bible into Saudi Arabia. This PC correctness have destroyed most of the European countries. Do we need it here too. There are fools in every country, but I have never read anything so foolish as this article. Its a shame CNN gives space to these idiots.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:57 am |
  7. Richter

    * Ahhhh yes, just what the world needs.
    More buildings where humans can go to pray and worship an invisible all powerful alien.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:57 am |
  8. Archyle

    the main issue is not about whether it is right or wrong, it is wrong. The main issue is that there are people who have no idea what Islam really is and what it really teaches. All day long our leaders get up and talk about how Islam is a beautiful peaceful religion, I want to thank Kimberly for quoting particular passages in the Qu'ran that give evidence that the supreme goal of Islam is a conquest. Already there are entire Muslim communities that are self-substained in America. They do not allow anyone who is not a convert in, and the number of converts is rising. Thier Allah is not the judeo-christian God because if he is he would not have refuted his earlier message of peace and servitude and selfless love of neighbor through Jesus six hundred years later...Thier Allah changed his stance on issues throughout the Q'uran, and this is evidence more than anything that that text was not inspired by God, but by a man who wanted to start an empire. He was successful, and that empire is vast, as big as persia was in the hieght of its glory, bigger in that they have such a strong influence in eastern and central europe. The truth is far worse than anyone who reads only the news knows, because often times newscasters get thier "facts" from biased experts who present a few pieces of the puzzle. A mosque at ground zero is wrong in that a mosque is indeed a place where Jihad is organized, it may not be a physical war , but it is an intelligence war. even in America. The Muslims have the best counter-intelligence practices of any group of people, but Bush's hard stance on all Muslims definitely did not help that.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:57 am |
  9. Richter

    Ahhhh yes, just what he world needs.
    More buildings where humans can go to pray and worship an invisible all powerful alien.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:56 am |
  10. lol

    Jay name one mosque in the vatican?? All other muslim countries in the world have churches. (except for Somalia but thats a whole diffrent other animal)

    July 20, 2010 at 10:56 am |
  11. Steve

    One of the news shows a couple of years back showed a Mosque in the middle east. It had a tile mosaic on the side of an airplane flying toward to tall twin skyscrapers. If that doesn't connect the dots, i don't know what does.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:56 am |
  12. SAM

    When you took about Islam first you have to live among them and you have to read their books the Qurans and the Hadeeths,
    I am Arabic Christian lived in middle east for 29 year.
    and I understand Islam very well, Islam is a religion of hate, in the Hadeeth the Prophet said (i been ordered by GOD to kill every non-believer to he or she believes in GOD and Mohammad is the prophet) and in the Quran the Muslim said GOD told them to get ready to terrorize the enemy to kill them where ever you find them. Islam is about lying you can lie in Islam in three conditions
    1-when you are at war you can lie to
    2-to your wife
    3-to make peace

    July 20, 2010 at 10:56 am |
  13. Kumar

    I am from India, Mosque should not be built there, for one simple reason, where i come from though Muslims are a real minority they have built mosque's in prime location and terrorist use them as a good hiding place. I am not saying that muslims are all bad, just that in todays world most terrorists are muslims and there is no real reason why a mosque needs to be built there.....

    July 20, 2010 at 10:55 am |
  14. Bobby

    Sure...let them build it, and when they're done, let's go ahead and build the KKK National Headquarters next door to the Martin Luther King Memorial to show our solidarity and understanding as well.

    Just because the US is tolerant and allows freedoms that most other countries don't allow, doesn't mean you need to push the boundaries of those freedoms and then complain when people take note that it's a very bad idea. Completely moving away from the idea of it being a haven for terrorists (because I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the many Muslim Americans who's ideals differ from those who are out to hurt us) how do you think Muslim extremists groups will view this? Do you think they'll say to themselves "wow, those Americans sure are some tolerant people, maybe we were wrong about them!" or do you think they'll say "ANOTHER VICTORY FOR ALLAH AGAINST THE INFIDELS...WE BUILD PLACES OF WORSHIP WHERE WE MURDER THEM...LET'S DO IT AGAIN!"

    Simple fact of the matter is that as sad as it is, it's dangerous for everyone involved if that Mosque goes there. Dangerous on both sides as both sides have a lot of idiots that would take it as some kind of sign to do the other side harm. I, as a taxpayer, really don't want to see my hard earned dollars go to paying for security to protect this place from a bunch of hillbillies with an agenda, or a bunch of extremists trying to make it their headquarters.

    You really think that if this Mosque goes up that they won't be dealing with graffiti, threats of violence and hate crimes on a weekly basis from ignorant Americans? Do you really think that this place won't end up being a rally point for anti-US sentiments? Do you really think that extremists won't do everything they can to claim this property as their own to show the US how much control they have?

    You would have to be a complete bufoon not to see these things happening in the future...in a perfect world they could build this Mosque and we could all stand around it holding hands and singing happily, but this isn't a perfect world, and building this Mosque is a danger to EVERYONE, including the Muslims that would attend.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:54 am |
  15. Tom

    All this talk about we need to be tolerant of the desires of those wanting to build the mosque at ground zero, but what about the ned to be tolerant of the emotions and desires of those losing loved ones in the attacks on 9/11?

    July 20, 2010 at 10:54 am |
  16. John

    The muslims built a mosque in Jerusalem and look what happened to the middle east over the last one thousand years.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:54 am |
  17. Joe

    A good article that focuses on the Freedom of Religion in America, and I am for this freedom, but he still fails, like many other supporters, to see that religion is only a small part of the debate. The other more important part, is the respect for those who lost their lives. This debate loses this second part because we all want to be "politically correct." But as many politicians and people know, there are some cases where political correctness just can not be used. This is one of them. Yes it would be right to allow them to build this community center, but the sad truth remains that Islam enabled the terrorists and the attacks were done in the name of Allah. Out of respect for those who died, this center can not be built. I know that most Muslims do not agree with the teachings of the Terrorists, but the sad truth remains that the terror attacks were done in the name of Islam and enabled by Islam.

    So I give you some examples for you to think about, would America build a temple to honor the Japanese fighters who attacked Pearl Harbor? Would America build a community center dedicated to Timothy McVeigh near the site of the Oklahoma City Bombing? Would you build anything in the name of a murderer or convicted criminal next to the spot of their greatest achievement? Think about it, this is a case where political correctness needs to be dismissed, this community center can not be built out of respect for those who lost their lives that day.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:53 am |
  18. peeved

    This would be a slap in the face for all who lost friends, relatives, coworkers on 911. No way should something representative of the Muslim world be allowed to do this.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:51 am |
  19. John

    Get in touch with reality Stephen....moron.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:51 am |
  20. Adibese

    All I have to say is, if you don't believe that the Koran is about going to war over the Islam religion... you need to read the Koran and then research the meanings behind what it says. And Liberals need to stop being so gullible.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:51 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.