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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. NY-David

    Does anyone get the fact that we've had mosques in the country for centries? There is already three mosques in the vicinity of Lower Manhattan.
    NY-David

    July 20, 2010 at 11:10 am |
    • Bob

      The problem isnt a mosque in Manhatten, the problem is a 16 story mosque on WTC grounds. Total slap in the face, period.

      July 20, 2010 at 11:13 am |
    • NY-David

      Bob, I appreciate your comment, however its not on the WTC site, but four blocks up. You can't see it from there. As the auther indicates, we don't want the terrorists to have changed us and our values. If we dis-allow this, then they will have done just that.
      NY-David

      July 20, 2010 at 11:41 am |
  2. Maya Gibson

    9-11 happened based on an ideology – JIHAD ...it is Islam related, whether you are a peaceful Muslim or an extremist, building a Mosque in ground zero is adding insult to injury. If this is truly for PEACEFUL and HEALING purpose, why not consult the families of the victims in 9-11. Sadly majority of the people who instantly supports this are ignorant about the symbolic significance of a mosque:

    "Within a few years after the death of Muhammad, mosques became such important symbols, that when Muslim conquerors established themselves somewhere, a mosque erected first, and then the military camp was built around it. This building process was inspired by the Madina example. But in the cases where the Muslims conquered principal cities, they constructed the mosque in the place that was the centre of the religion of the conquered people." source i-cias[dot]com

    July 20, 2010 at 11:09 am |
  3. Lalit

    Never never fell into the trap of this mosque. This will be very vary bad for New York and for the whole of US. First they hit the buildings and then they try to reach out to people saying that they are the peace loving people but that not true. They have bad intentions to hide like they are proving you that we will erect our mosques anywhere and will hit if we think its correct. Don't let them set example in such a way. Where ever they are in majority, see the state of other religions. Either they will get killed or get converted, they always unite together to become majority and then will show their barbaric culture like in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and many more. One latest example is in Uganda. DON'T let them do this.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:08 am |
  4. Rich

    To all you dumb morons/haters. The mosque is not being built on the actual ground zero site. It is 2 blocks away. Get a life!!!

    July 20, 2010 at 11:08 am |
  5. MyOpinion

    The "Islamic" extremists who carry out terrorism are similar to the "Catholic" priests who molest children- they do not define the religion or exemplify its followers in any way. Most members of each respective religion abhor the actions of those individuals and regard them as lunatics. Banning the mosque would be pointless and that action would perpetuate the cycle of hatred and further alienate Muslims of our own communities.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:07 am |
    • Michael, Chapel HIll

      It is a poor exmaple. An abusive Catholic priest and terrorists are entirely different. Compare apples with apples!

      July 20, 2010 at 11:30 am |
  6. Wisest

    Religious tolerance is often misunderstood as an inability to resolve crisis. Hundreds of years ago, Muslim invaders destroyed the Hindu temple of God Shiva in Varanasi (on the banks of river Ganges) and built a mosque on top of its pillars(hindu temple pillars can be seen even today) to remind Hindus of future genarations that it was their temple destroyed to build a mosque. An insult tolerated by Hindus from centuries and ridiculed by Muslims around the world. This will be the exact situation at Ground Zero. A place where we visit to pay tributes to our fallen heros will newly include pro-islamic arabic speeches from speakers atop the so called cultural center. What an insult to the matryrs and shame to Americans. The extremist muslim community will rejoice with its conception. One thing is for sure, we will never forget 9/11 but if we have to forgive the muslims, DONT build the mosque there.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:06 am |
  7. Brad

    The mosque there would be a good idea only if it is 100 percent that it will be blown up. And everytime it is rebuilt, blow it up again. Only then would it be good because otherwise it would be horrible. What most people do not get about the religion of hate is that basically they want to
    in time rule our country under sharia law. By their religion they can lie to anyone that is not muslim and when the time comes they will basically cut your throat. This mosque should not be allowed and anyone that thinks this would be a good first step is wrong. They take anything we give and they will not pay it forward. Again, if we can blow it up when it is built and being opened on sept 11 2011 that would provide some entertainment at least.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:06 am |
  8. Carlos

    Send all Moslims home. Maybe they kill each other over there. Bunch of terrorist!!!!

    July 20, 2010 at 11:06 am |
    • tahira

      Carlos, this IS my home. My family has been in this country since 1772. When did yours get here? My ancestors fought and died for my right to worship God as I see fit. This ignorance disgusts me.

      July 21, 2010 at 11:57 am |
  9. J.M. Pelland

    Terrorists are called 'Terrorists' because they're main purpose is to destroy established order and instill fear into the hearts of men and women everywhere. If you people let fear drive you to stand against the construction of a mosque, you've proven our country is as weak as the terrorists claim it to be.

    Our country, a land of immigrants and liberty, is perhaps the most intolerant country in the world. Stop making excuses, stop inventing threats, and stop complaining about everything. This country has enough problems to deal with without the fabrication of some new oh-so-imminent danger afoot.

    Thank you, Stephen, for composing a brilliantly calculated to an increasingly sensitive argument.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:06 am |
    • J.M. Pelland

      *a brilliantly calculated response to an increasingly sensitive argument.

      July 20, 2010 at 11:08 am |
  10. Bob Greiner

    I realize this is a painful issue for some. But what amazes me is how the right wing constantly complains that the legal system is taking away religious freedom, by not displaying the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, etc. But right wing doesn't want interference with religious liberty. But then this is yet another example that the right wing is not interested in freedom so much as compliance with the right wing's idea of what we all should believe.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:06 am |
  11. Crady

    Let the families of the victims decide. I should doubt they share your slobbering naiveté, and am certain they have a far better grasp of what exactly "globalization" means to the evil that is Islam.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:06 am |
  12. Iskander

    I am a christian egyptian, I live here in the US. I can assure everyone that muslims are trying to take over America. I heard them preaching that in mosques in egypt many many times.
    They believe the more mosques they have the more they can spread their religion.
    Please Americans beware.... Its their dream to convert everyone in the country.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:05 am |
  13. Kumar

    What a shame, I am a big fan of CNN ... i cant believe they let this article through....

    July 20, 2010 at 11:05 am |
  14. Chris

    Although I believe we should tolerate people of other faiths, I think a mosque near ground zero is like a slap in the face to the victims of the crime. 9/11 was an attack on the US and our country was founded on christian principals. Islam is growing all over the world. Maybe the US is too tolerant.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:04 am |
  15. andrea

    let's break this down issue by issue...
    first of all, this turned into a Christian America vs Muslim debate.
    This is NOT what this should be about.
    Jesus teaches us tolerance and acceptance... embrace your enemy, remember?
    That being said, what should really be discussed is how this is affecting the memory of 9/11. I am all for having a mosque being built in NYC. However, having it built in ground zero is disrespectful towards the mourning families and all of those affected by the attack.
    It's sort of like building a Jewish temple in Gaza. They wouldn't like that very much. It's not about religion, or terrorism, or whatever other excuses you all come up with. It's about respect.
    Muslims want respect and tolerance, just as Christians, Jews and Buddhists. If we are ever going to reach respect and tolerance, start by showing it...and the complete opposite is being done by building that mosque.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:04 am |
  16. J. T

    This author is in the ilk that does what it can to spread disinformation, unwittingly or not. He might have a title and be well read and may even be an author, but that does not mean that his opinion or research is unbiased. I do not believe that 9/11 was planed, perpetrated and executed by religious zealots in caves halfway across the world. I believe it was allowed to happen by a few people in our government and its clandestine agencies if it was. The truth is Islam is a religion of war and conquest, and ever new mosque is a new stronghold of that idealogy, but as it was addressed in “People of Skokie Ill, Vs. American Nazi Party,” to censor hateful rhetoric does more harm to our rights than the potential of the rhetoric itself. I believe they have every right to do it. But since a majority of American people believe this act of terrorism was foriegn in origin, and perpetrated by Islamic Extremist, it is not necessarily right...

    July 20, 2010 at 11:04 am |
  17. StevenS

    Because of such idiots that think we can "buy our safeness with muslims" by allowing them do whatever they want and because of all this "politically correct" statements, we do have our issues. I also see too many comments where people are blaming Israel for all US issues with muslims – it so stupid to think that if US stop supporting Israel, them muslims start loving us! So Stupid!!!

    July 20, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  18. concerned

    I don't think is a good idea to build a mosque near GZ. Not at this time in history.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  19. qiggy

    So, in the name of tolerance, in 1945 Christians should have erected churches at ground zero in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How tolerant is Iran about building Christian churches? How about erecting a Jewish temple in the Palestian refuge camps? No, you say? Too insensitive? Bingo! The terrorists were (and usually are) muslim fanatics. You need to preach your tolerance to those fanatics. Tolerance must be a two-way street or it's propaganda.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  20. Qaiser Malik

    I am a muslim and I know what I am going to do in this new mosque at Ground Zero.

    I WILL GO THERE AND PRAY THAT ALL OF THESE TERRORISTS GO TO HELL FOR KILLING INNOCENT PEOPLE ON 9/11.

    You cannot find and justification in any religion (including Islam) to kill people. It's politics. Stupid Osama want support for his dream of getting power in Saudi Arabia and he made this a holy war.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:02 am |
    • SamBritell

      ... how is this Obama's war? The war started under Bush and was given fuel by Americans...

      July 20, 2010 at 11:13 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.