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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. John

    Let's get down to the real issue? Dot head or pull start?

    July 20, 2010 at 11:19 am |
  2. Garrett

    Al Qaeda and Islamic Extremists are to Islam and Muslims as the KKK is to Christianity. If you want to believe every Mosque is a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists, then every church is a front for the Klan.

    Christians are just as likely to go to war for religion as muslims. Northern Ireland has been at war with itself for almost a century because not only the clash between British and Irish loyalists, but because the other half doesn't believe in Jesus the 'correct' way.

    The Koran speaks of war for religion much like the Bible does, its in there, just read it. These are also book written at a time when going to war was part of life. Tribes and empires with different beliefs would come in and take over and force their beliefs on those they conquered. It was written in for that very purpose, to protect itself from being abolished. The same ideals are in the Torah and the Bible.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:18 am |
  3. crazycarlmn

    Out of respect for the Individuals that lost family due to the terrorist islamic people wether the ones building the mosque are terrorist or not, You would think that if they had any respect for those families they would not build a mosque next to ground zero. Why is everything in america about respecting everyone else, what about respecting the people that already live here and people stop all this policially correct BS. Anyone who comes to America should respect our ways and our traditions if they dont like it then leave!

    July 20, 2010 at 11:17 am |
  4. Chuck711

    Building a mosque at ground zero is so wrong on every level. I get the whole religious freedom and tolerance thing, but I would never support this effort. We would be the laughing stock of the world. The imagery of it all would just be too offensive and ironic. What little respect I had for muslims to begin with has just been crushed. If muslims had any respect whatsoever for the tragic events of 9/11, they would not insist on building a mosque here. It makes me sick.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:17 am |
  5. James Fernsale

    Apathetic: "Let's assume Maria's statement to be true. Don't build the mosque because some Muslims killed in Allah's name. In this same line of thinking, you can no longer build churches because some Christians kill (kill abortion doctors, for example) in the name of God."

    You're taking the important point of the discussion out of your example. The LOCATION. No one said that mosques couldn't be built elsewhere.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:17 am |
  6. James

    "Tolerance" does not equal advocation, which is what this editorial is. Do we tolerate White Supremists? NO! We ridicule them, and we try our best to diminish their presence and influence in our society. We don't tolerate Nazis either. Why is this? Because both groups eventually espouse some sort of violence to advance their ideology. So what makes Islam different? Yes, it is a religion vice a political belief, but there is ample evidence that muslims are charged to advance their religion through any means necessary.

    Additionally, it seems rather hypocritical to me for what appears to be a rather intolerant religion to be asking for tolerance. If it was a “community” center vice an “Islamic community” center I would be inclined to back it, but since it isn’t I can’t.

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

      Well said Chris. The evidence is clearer than clear. and there are defected Muslims all over the country and the world who are trying to warn us t Islams true intent, which could not be any clearer because oppression, intolerance and terrorism is mandated in the Q'uran:

      Believers, take neither the Jews nor the Christians for your friends. (5:51)
      – Make war on them until idolatry shall cease and God's religion shall reign supreme. (8:40)
      – Fight against them until idolatry is no more and God's religion reigns supreme. (2:193)
      – The true believers fight for the cause of God, but the infidels fight for the devil. (4:76)
      – We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. (3:151)
      – I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, strike off the very tips of their fingers. (8:12)

      July 20, 2010 at 11:55 am |
  7. Islam

    As a Muslim, I am against the 100 Million dallar masjid. It is waste of money when millions of people are dying of hungry all over the world. We, muslim, have forgot that the prophet had instructed us to keep the masjid simple. We do not need a 100 Million dallar masjid to show the world that we are a peaceful religion. Our action should speak for us.

    To Eveyone Else:
    More then 100 muslims also died in Ground Zero attachs. Most of them were poor (working as Janitors, Security etc.) That is why you have not heard of them.

    Bible is also full of violent passages.

    In last 2000 years, Christian have killed two or three time more human then any religions. The following people were killed in the last few centuries: Native American, African American, Jew in Europe, Japan, Korea, vietnam, Aztecs, Iraq, Afghan, etc etc, were all killed by god loving Christian.

    More human have died figthing over, Religion, Land & Wealth.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:16 am |
  8. kivi

    what a silly article – it ignored so many crucial facts:
    1. the Imam who is supposed to head this mosque is a radical muslim, who says that 9/11was america's fault.
    2. the funding for the mosque is not known.
    but even if the imam was a nice, normal guy, AND even if we knew where the funding was coming from, STILL, it is a slap in the face to any new yorker to build a structure that glorifies the ALLAH, when allah akbar was screamed as these civilian-targeting terrorists plunged into the world trade center.
    SAY NO!!!!

    July 20, 2010 at 11:15 am |
  9. Bulldawg

    If a mosque is built there, it will stand as golden trophy to their victory over the infidels. Go ahead . . . make their day.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:15 am |
  10. WARRIOR

    SEND ALL MUSLIMS HOME SO THEY CAN KILL EACH OTHER OVER THERE. BUNCH OF TERRORIST DON'T DESERVE TO LIVE.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:14 am |
  11. Mark-Atl

    Racists and haters will always be racists and haters...99% of people who are against the mosque are also for deporting all Hispanic immigrants, against gay rights, against affirmative action….they will always find someone/something to hate but they are cowards and will always wrap their hate into something else like ‘911 emotions’, “illegal immigrations”, “sanctity of marriage…while all they want to get rid of all Muslims, Mexicans, gays..etc... So Muslims in America don’t feel too special, you are just one group on the long list of our extreme right hate objects.
    The only problem is that our horrible media is promoting hate and racism by treating them as valid opinions. Hate is hate – mo matter how hard you are wrapping it into something else.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:13 am |
  12. JMinNYC

    Ok, being a former 3-yr resident of 53 park place (literally right next door to the proposed site) people need to know how bad this location truly is. Within 50 yards and in clear view of the front door of this proposed mosque is a building that is still in the process of being torn down after being damaged in the 9/11 attacks when 7 world trade collapsed right next door to it. If you stand at the intersection of W Broadway and Park Place you can truly see how inappropriate this location would be.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:13 am |
  13. StevenS

    Please all of you who support the muslim and the mosque – see it in a different point. Look at how many of you have a different opinion and do not afraid to raise your opinion. Now, show me a muslim who would say "I understand that people does not want to have a mosque which is a religious house of a religion of terrorist who done 9-11, and I am asking other muslims to build the mosque in a different place in donwtown of NY". Do you see any muslim who says so????? Sure not!! And this is a prove that all of them are connected – not that they are terrorists, but they see it as a triumpf of their religion.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:12 am |
  14. Mark

    How incredibly naive. Why do you think AMericans want a monument at the site? It is hallowed ground. A place where nearly 3,000 innocent Americans were slaughtered by Islamic terrorists, and you dare to suggest that Islam build so much as bus shelter within a mile of this place? You disgust me. The Muslims who dare to rub this in our faces disgust me, and it should enrage all Americans that liberals would so freely allow this site to be desecrated. You wouldn't have lasted 2 minutes in 1941.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:12 am |
  15. Scott

    Building a mosque at Ground Zero is like erecting a Protestant Church on the grounds of Auschwitz.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:11 am |
  16. Sean

    Fact is that Islamic terrorists kill more Muslims worldwide than they do anyone else.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:11 am |
  17. Bob

    Hey, why not? I mean, we will just end up like the wonderful country Britain is (eyeroll).

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

    The end of our great, constitutionally protected society is at hand. Political correctness and feelings have destroyed any distinction the youth have of right and wrong, just look at all the young hedge fund moguls that help dessimate out economy by thier greed. A morally relativistic society such as ours cannot stand against such a determined group which is Islam. thier moral code may be wrong, but it far surpasses the American moral compass, and while we stand here argueing they are not, they agree on the chief pillar of thier religion, dominate the world for Islam, good night, and good luck

    July 20, 2010 at 11:11 am |
  19. Americana

    Iti s important to remember that this Islamic Center was in the same location PRIOR TO 9-11 and NO ACTS OF VIOLENCE were committed by congregants or anyone associated with it.

    The oppenents of this Islamic Center, at their core, associate Islam with the current geopolitical conditions and that is the question our country's leaders need to address in this controversy. If you are unable to intellectually process the current global conditions, you blame all the world's problems on Islam and opposed all things Islamic. If you are intellectually capable of separating Islam from current global conflict, you realize that this Islamic Center has the same right to exist as a Church, Synagog, or temple.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:11 am |
  20. Sunny

    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.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 happ

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

      Sorry to break this to you, but there are churches in predominantly Muslim contries and have been for years.
      NY-David

      July 20, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
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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.