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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. keithmoore1

    Sorry, this viewpoint is a little too liberal for my tastes. America generally bends over backwards to accommodate religious tolerance, so haven't we earned a little sensitivity in this case by asking that the mosque be built someplace else besides the site of the country's biggest Islamic terrorist act?

    There sure as heck won't be any churches near bombing sites in Iraq or Afghanistan!

    July 20, 2010 at 11:30 am |
    • Chris

      "There sure as heck won't be any churches near bombing sites in Iraq or Afghanistan!"

      That's exactly why we are on the moral high ground and can claim to be a free country that does not practice religious intolerance. If we block the building of that mosque then we are no better than the Islamic terrorists who practice religious intolerance.

      July 20, 2010 at 11:35 am |
  2. Drew

    This is the United State of America, and I beleive what should go at ground zero is something to Honor all of the innocent Americans that were murdered on Sept 11 by the Islamic extremists....Build a Mosque there, that is a joke and an insult to all of those that died that day and all Americans in this country.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:30 am |
  3. NY-David

    Does anyone get the fact that there are three mosques in Lower Manhatten and many people are getting their panties in a bunch about this one. Why? We've had mosques here for centuries. Those who claim to respect the Constitution seem to have forgotten that once we edit one religion, we've been empowered to edit all.
    NY-David

    July 20, 2010 at 11:29 am |
  4. Chris

    Great article, I'm glad someone finally wrote something with some sense of American values. These past few weeks as this mosque has been debated I have felt ashamed to be an American and associated with people filled with such hatred and intolerance.

    Islamic terrorists try to convince their fellow Muslims that America is at war with their entire religion and culture when we are only at war with terrorists. Yet every time someone says or does something hateful towards Islam, a religion with over 1.5 billion people, it gives Muslims more reason to believe it's true. If this mosque is blocked (or even worse, attacked by Americans after it's built), the terrorists have won.

    Instead of practicing intolerance and lowering ourselves to the level of the terrorists, why not build a mosque at ground zero and show the world that we are on the moral high ground, and that we accept people of all religions and cultures, and that we do not hate based on religion. If not, then you cannot claim to live in the land of the free and home of the brave. More like the land of Christian extremists who practice hatred and intolerance, and who are at war with Islam.

    Tell me, which country would you rather live in?

    July 20, 2010 at 11:29 am |
    • NY-David

      I can hardly type, because I'm to busy applauding!!! Well said!!!
      NY-David

      July 20, 2010 at 11:33 am |
    • Michael

      Chris,
      Wake up and smell the coffee. These people are sworn enemies of the West. They wish to destroy us and you want to give them free entry.

      July 20, 2010 at 11:43 am |
    • NY-David

      That is, I was applauding Chris's comments, not the other guy's comments about him needing to wake up...

      July 20, 2010 at 11:56 am |
  5. MrHanson

    Qur'an 9:5 "When the sacred forbidden months for fighting are past, fight and kill the disbelievers wherever you find them, take them captive, beleaguer them, and lie in wait and ambush them using every stratagem of war."

    Bukhari:V4B53N412 "Allah’s Apostle said on the day of the conquest of Mecca, 'There is no migration now, only Jihad, holy battle. And when you are called for Jihad, you should come out at once.'"
    The message is as clear as Mein Kampf , as undeniable as Pearl Harbor, as brutal as 9/11: "There is only Jihad."

    Hitler, interestingly enough, repeated Muhammad’s line the morning he invaded Poland: "There is no more emigration now, only war."

    Qur'an 5:34 "Except for those who repent (and become Muslims) before you overpower them and they fall into your control. In that case, know that Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful."

    July 20, 2010 at 11:28 am |
  6. Chuck711

    This is not a question of religious tolerance. It's a question of imagery, and it's a question of intent. The image of a mosque at ground zero is offensive. It's an image of invasion and conquest. It doesn't even matter what the truth is in this case. It's all about the image, and the image makes me very angry. And what is the intent of those who insist on building a mosque here? It feels like provocation to me.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:28 am |
  7. Mark

    All of this again proves one thing there maybe 6.7 billon people on this earth and everyone is arguing about who’s religion is better think how much better life would be if we took out ALL religion then everyone could have a common ground, almost every war fought from the beginning of man has been about who’s god is better, every religion has a dark past none are even close to perfect. This is the USA and we do have freedom of religion but we also have freedom of speech and the freedom to live and you want to put a religion that beats women and covers them up and doesn’t give them the right to do anything in their home countries and put it at ground zero that’s insane.People argue that Islam is a peaceful religion even though they have all been at war for thousands of years give me a break.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:26 am |
  8. Brian from Chicago

    I recall that Americans were chastised for placing an American flag across the face of a fallen statue of Saddam Hussein, and we removed it upon realizing our own insensitivity. I only ask for the same sensitivity to be extended to us.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:26 am |
  9. vebhupat

    No mosque should be allowed near ground zero. No. No. and No.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:26 am |
  10. High Way

    Why build a mosque near ground zero, of all places? In New York I am sure there are plenty of places where they could have built it, but no, it must be ground near ground zero. I will give you some reference why it should not be built near ground zero. You got to understand that for Islam, sybolism is everything. Historically, if you look in Israel, there is a mosque built on top of the temple of solomon after the conquest. In Turkey, the Sophia-Istanbul christian church had 4 islamic mineret built around it and converted, after its fall. The same pattern could be seen over and over through history of Islamic conquests through peaceful or conflictual means. I could go on and on but do a research and you will understand much better. Therefore, if they built the mosque near ground zero, the symbolism that it could represent, years from now, is islamic victory over capitalism and our way of life. You got to understand that building a mosque with miilions of dollars is business as usual for a capitalist but for Islam its more than you think. All here above is my opinion.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:26 am |
  11. BossMan114

    NO MOSQUE. What a stupid idea. Building a mosque is a sign of victory to the terrorists. Muslims in America is a bad idea. They are not to be trusted.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:24 am |
  12. MayGodblessAmericaAlwaysAmeen

    If we hinder the true educated American Muslims from building mosques, from reminding fellow Muslims the beauty of Islam, then we are leaving the job up to "self-proclaimed experts" who have hijacked the religion.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:23 am |
  13. Ns

    Random dave is right, end of conversation. There should be no argument on this, there is nothing wrong with building this mosque except to help promote religious equality and mend the wounds. Not all muslims are terrorists, get it right.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:23 am |
  14. Butch Hollenbeck

    Everyday we read where the newest and youngest terrorists are persuaded to go bad thru their affiliation with their prayer sites and their twisted mentors. They do not appreciate or respect our religions, which our country was founded on, so why would they want to erect a mosque other than for devious purposes. Don't get me entirely wrong as i have many muslim friends but when I see terrorist rising from 2nd and 3rd generation familiesd living here in the USA and the UK etc, there is a fundamental negative issue. They do not come here to become American, they come here to reap the profits and hurt us when they read some twisted passage from the koran and they snap. No mosques, especially sitting on ground zero and they would see it as a trophy. Our founding fathers would roll over in their graves as woul dmy father and the rest of the Americans fought and died to build this nation.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:22 am |
  15. Dave

    I have no problem with a mosque at ground zero as long as it's draped from top to bottom in American flags and has a plaque listing all those who were murdered on 9/11 (and uses that word). Like it or not, there is a direct connection to Islam and what happened on 9/11 even if all Muslims don't share those ideals. Building a place of worship for the terrorists' religion right where they attacked us is submissive.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:22 am |
  16. secali

    Making the claim that a small percentage of radicals is giving Islam a bad name rings hollow. From London to Spain, Somalia to Denmark, New York to Moscow, this so-called small percentage is reeking havoc across the planet. Would this be another training ground? Possibly. Take a quick look at some of the members of the fine Muslim Students' Association (from Wikipedia):

    Journalist Deborah Scroggins, in exploring how suspected al-Qaeda member Aafia Siddiqui became an Islamist extremist, wrote for Vogue that if Siddiqui "was drawn into terrorism, it may have been through the contacts and friendships she made in the early 1990s working for MIT's Muslim Students Association. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the world's oldest and biggest Islamist movement, established the first MSAs in the country... and the movement's ideology continued to influence the MSA long after that. At MIT, several of the MSA's most active members had fallen under the spell of Abdullah Azzam, a Muslim Brother who was Osama bin Laden's mentor.... [Azzam] had established the Al Kifah Refugee Center to function as its worldwide recruiting post, propaganda office, and fund-raising center for the mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan... It would become the nucleus of the al-Qaeda organization."[10]
    Rutgers MSA co-founder Ramzi Yousef, a cousin of Siddiqui's second husband, was convicted for helping perpetrate the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.[11]
    Anwar al-Awlaki, accused of being an al-Qaeda member and who declared jihad against America in 2010, was President of the MSA at Colorado State University, which he graduated in 1994.[12]
    Ali Asad Chandia, who was president of the MSA at Montgomery College from 1998 to 1999,[13] was convicted of providing material support to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani terrorist organization, and assisting the Virginia Jihad Network,[13] and sentenced to 15 years in prison.[14][15]
    The University of California Irvine Muslim Student Union is an affiliated chapter of MSA National, which was suspended for the 2010-2011 school year for organizing a conspiracy to disrupt Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren from speaking at a university sponsored event

    July 20, 2010 at 11:21 am |
  17. Ns

    If only we didn't generalize people because of religion. Not all muslims are terrorists. When will all of you people understand that. The way some of these people are acting including Wheeler is a disgrace to what we stand for. And of course, this would never had happened if there was no religion at all, but that's just me. It's a big ass waste of time.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:21 am |
  18. Americana

    Dear Sunny,

    There are thousands of churches and synagoues in muslim countries – and have been for over one thousand years, including the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem and others (you know, where Jesus lived). Please become an informed person before you act. If you would learn history, you would find that muslims have defended the churches in their countries from others. You would also learn that muslims defended Jews from Hitler when Christians let them be slaughtered.

    Please resolve to learn the facts.

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

    Keep criticizing all you can by asking questions like "whether Saudi, Iran or any Islamic country would ever allow a church to be built at a place if some non-muslims attacked their site". This is why US is different from these polarizing religious countries and it is what makes USA the best in the world. You are entitled to your feelings and opinions, but understand that you have NO right to stop a mosque or a temple or a church being built on that site. Rules are rules and just because you are feeling sick, it does not make all of a sudden some "logical sense" to have your feelings implemented.
    Having said that, there are rules in this country that allows freedom of expression/religion, separation of church and state, and many other things. Keep voicing your opinion in strongest terms about how sick you feel and other nonsense validating quotes, but the mosque will be built because. In the eyes of the NY city authorities, it is a land that was purchased by a client to build a mosque.

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

    This guy proves you can be educated and have NO common sense. They can keep their mosque in the middle east. I an now see why some Americans go off the deep end and get guns then move to the mountains. Perhaps TOO MUCH Democracy is not a good thing.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:20 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.