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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. dino0128

    i think that if the muslims are bend on building a mosque in pursuit of peace and love of America and NY at groubd zero, should instead build a multi-faith buidling opened to the public so that people from all walks of life/religion can reflect and pray together.

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

    Yes they can built a mosque but just not there!!!! There are plenty of other places to build. Why keep wanting to hurt the ones that already suffered enough... Please respect and be sensitive to people who have not forgotten 9/11! That,s all...

    July 20, 2010 at 11:41 am |
  3. Erky

    I think this issue needs to be wrestled away from the rednecks. For the people making statements like 'do you think the Saudi's would let us build a church over there", the answer is no, they probably wouldn't – but we're not Saudi Arabia.
    The United States is supposed to be a free country, governed by laws – not governed by what other countries do or don't do, and certainly not governed by the actions of a few criminals and murderers. If the new building meets codes and legal requirements, and we're a free country, and there's freedom or religion – why shouldn't it be built?

    July 20, 2010 at 11:41 am |
  4. InShock

    I completely agree with 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. It makes me and everyone I know sick. Please let them build it somewhere else.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:40 am |
  5. a1

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_kQjkbjfBg&w=640&h=360]

    July 20, 2010 at 11:39 am |
  6. GREG

    As I read the story my heart grew heavy...As i read the blogs my eyes fill with tears. After all of our service men and women have sacrificed from the culminating point of9/11, a mosuque is proposed to be built on this site. It is not about freedoms or what this country was built on...it IS about respect, remebering and honor. As a vet, Americans who have never put themselves in harms way, always fall short in this aspect. To the powers that be...please respect, remeber and honor our brave that have served and continue to do so. RLTW

    July 20, 2010 at 11:38 am |
  7. Kris

    What is the need for a new mosque? Has the muslim population in Manhattan has increased multifold since 9/11? Why can't the existing mosques take care of their needs? I am not a christian and I am not an atheist. However, I do not believe in buliding new places of worship when we have so many existing ones.

    Looking differently, if your daughter / son is killed by a mobster and then the mobster wants to build his office right across your house, how do you feel? I understand religeous tolerism and all other liberal ideas. I came from a country which was raped by muslim invaders for centuries and we allowed them to integrate into our culuture. So, please do not preach me about tolerance. That's different. There should not be a Mosque at that site or near that site. Period. That tolerance / sensitivity should be there for those who want to build a Mosque there.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:38 am |
  8. steved

    1) it is not a mosque and 2) it is not at ground zero. Talk about sensationist reporting. It is a existing downtown building a few blocks from ground zero that they would tear down and build this interfaith muslim based centre with a community theater which has a prayer room but is not even close to a mosque. So it would be built NOT on ground zero but on a currently occupied block in lower Manhattan. So sad a time we live in – that we have to even be disputing this – do we have religous freedoms in the US or not!

    July 20, 2010 at 11:37 am |
  9. James Brix

    A few facts to consider: Fact 1: It is illegal to build mosques in many Muslim countries, and in places where legal, it is extremely difficult. Fact 2: Conversion from Islam to other religions is punishable with death. Fact 3: A Muslim woman is not allowed to marry except a Muslim. Fact 4: Millions of Muslims enjoy free, peaceful and prosperous lives in the US and across Europe. Fact 5: Historically, when Muslims have been granted such freedoms in non-Muslim nations, they leverage the double standard to their advantage, eventually destroying the host culture and religion and installing their own ruthless form of religion and rule in its place. Wake up, America! Your kindness and inclusiveness can be (is) mistaken for weakness and ignorance. Use your strength before it's slowly peeled away from you.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:37 am |
  10. Michael

    The incredible lack of sensitivity that the Muslims are showing by insisting on building a mosque so close to Ground Zero speaks directly to their hidden agenda, their motives. Why are they so insistent on it in the face of such opposition? How can they claim it is meant to heal wounds when they are wounding those directly affected by the loss of loved ones? The answer is to look to history, to the previous actions of Muslims in other places. Look to Lebanon or Egypt or Israel. When the Muslims move into a new neighborhood they build their mosques right next to Christian Churches. They build them massively larger than the church, overshadowing it. They drown out the church bells with their call to prayers. Look at what happened in Bethlehem. Before it was turned over to the Palestinian Authority in 1995 there was a 60% Christian/40% Muslim population mix. Now is 80% Muslim/20% Christian. I visited Bethlehem and talked to the Christians. Their families have inhabited this city since the time of Christ, but now they leave because the Muslims drive them out through political repression, through violence, through intimidation. In Egypt the Coptic minority is ruthlessly oppressed. Priests are murdered. Churches are burned. In Lebanon the Muslims have executed these takeover tactics for 30 years. The Christians are leaving in droves because of repression. Finally, if you still want to dismiss this tactic as not believable or geographically distant or culturally not feasible in the US, I challenge you to spend some time in Dearborn, Michigan (Metropolitan Detroit has the largest concentration of Middle Easterners n the Western Hemisphere). Tell me what you see and hear. Examine the recent “laws” being passed by City Council. Look at what is going on in the Dearborn schools. Also, if you look real hard you’ll find people who actively, openly support Hezbollah and Hamas.
    They are not building a mosque at Ground Zero. It’s a Muslim beachhead in the Muslim declared war between Islam and the West. This is NOT to be a place of worship. It’s a monument to the fallen martyrs. It’s a trophy, a rallying point. Understand this: Islam is NOT just a religion. It’s an entire way of life with no quarter, no tolerance for other ways. Islam is a religion, a political system (Sharia courts), a social system (veiling of women), and an economic system (not allowed to charge interest). The Quran and the Haditha tell the story. Read them and know.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:36 am |
  11. Alexis

    A mosque at Ground Zero is like a Christian fundamentalist going in Saudi Arabia, blowing up 3,000 people, and then some church coming along and saying "Sorry about that, can we build a church here now?" I'm sure that would go over well.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:36 am |
    • Nick

      You forget. As horrible of an act 9/11 was it was payback for all the innocent lives America has killed and continues to kill overseas. It amounts to millions. Not to mention Osama's revenge against us for screwing him over. read about it. He fought off the Russians for us and was promised millions to help Afghanistan. Guess what? nada. We screwed him just like we always do. And by the way 300 American Muslims died too in 9/11.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:19 pm |
  12. Heike

    On September 11th, 2010 we will burn the Koran on the property of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, FL in remembrance of the fallen victims of 9/11 and to stand against the evil of Islam. Islam is of the devil!

    July 20, 2010 at 11:34 am |
    • Nick

      Wouldn't that be something Heike if Islam were the true religion that God has for us and that because the way American politics is, ie. millions of Iraqis killed during the last ten years for an act they didnt even do, the fanatics come out and revenge against us. I could name a number of instances whereby American politics have killed tens of thousands of innocent Muslims around the world. It may even be in the millions. And because revenge against our innocent people takes place, we are at war with Islam? Come on. If you separate protestants form Catholics adherents to Islam far outnumber all religions. IF even one hundredth of one percent of Muslims were terrorists we would all be dead. Do your homework before you say something dumb. Burn the Koran. What a joke. Do you know even burning the Bible in Islam is a grave sin? Of course you didn't. Do you know much of the old testament is in the Koran? A lot.

      July 20, 2010 at 11:58 am |
  13. InShock

    Completely agree with Chuck711

    Building a mosque at ground zero is VERY 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. 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. It makes everyone I know SICK. Please build it somewhere else.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:34 am |
  14. American

    Building a mosque at ground zero would be spitting in the face of every American and defiling the memory of all those who died in the attack.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:34 am |
  15. Darpino

    These terrorist have changed our way of thinking. These things never existing prior to 911. Suddenly the after 1400 hundred years of existence of we have woken up to believe that Islam in not peaceful religion. People who committed the 911 crime are enemies of mankind. For people like them the rest of the Muslims are suffering. On the other hand the media is glorifying news which it should not. if the mosque is not built then the terrorist have succeeded.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:34 am |
  16. Heike

    Islam is a not a religion. it is a totalitarian system reigned by fear and control. Look to mainly Islamic countries. There is no freedom ( or do you think you can easily build a church in one of these countries) Where Islam grows, freedom disappears. Get educated about Islam, America and wake up! ISLAM IS OF THE DEVIL. Get the book by Dr Terry Jones.
    On September 11th, 2010 we will burn the Koran on the property of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, FL in remembrance of the fallen victims of 9/11 and to stand against the evil of Islam. Islam is of the devil!

    July 20, 2010 at 11:34 am |
    • Nick

      FREEDOM. WHAT FREEDOM? AMERICA IS NOT FREE. YOU CANT SAY WHATEVER YOU WANT WITHOUT CONSEQUENCE. YOU CANT DO WHATEVER YOU WANT WITHOUT CONSEQUENCE. WHAT FREEDOM ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT THIS SO CALLED FREE COUNTRY HAS DONE TO OTHER COUNTRIES? DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT IT TOOK 200 YEARS TO GET WHERE WE ARE TODAY? DO YOU REALIZE THAT IN THE CIVIL WAR HOW MANY PEOPLE DIED HERE TO GET WHERE WE ARE TODAY. AND WE HAVE THE NERVE TO GO TO OTHER COUNTRIES AND TELL THEM HOW TO LIVE AND BECOME A " SO CALLED FREE COUNTRY IN 5 YEARS" ARE YOU FOR REAL? BURN THE KORAN? THATS YOUR SOLUTION? THATS YOUR PAYBACK? THATS GOING TO SOLVE EVERYTHING? THATS THE CAUSE OF ALL THIS? WHATS IN THE KORAN. WOW. GOD HELP YOU.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:08 pm |
  17. danial54

    Sorry ace....but this idea of building a mosque near ground zero is like rubbing salt in a wound. It is way to soon for anything like that. It will be a very long time before we heal to that point. Radical Islamic's a part of out lives now that need to be eliminated from society. If there is a non-radical Islamic society, then maybe they should stand up against the radicals in a way that would put a stop to them forever....like infiltration. Help military, cia, fbi and all others that are trying to defeat this enemy.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:34 am |
  18. JStone

    Ground zero should be considered sacred ground. But instead of building plaques or statues or anything of that nature to signify it as sacred ground, we should build a mosque. And a synagogue. And a Buddhist temple. And a Christian church and a center for the study of cooperative religion. It should be a working monument dedicated to bringing the religions of the world together. Religion literally means, what binds us together. Imagine inter-religious worship, dialogue, understanding. That would be a monument worthy of the scope and tragedy of 911. That would be constructing a solution to Peace.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:33 am |
  19. morton

    Suppose this mosque goes up. And suppose it is damaged........would this not provoke more violence around the world leading to a full fledged war? And how many, many more young people would die then??? Has this dangerous scenario been factored in by those who are espousing this proposal of building the mosque?

    July 20, 2010 at 11:32 am |
  20. J. T

    you say this, but it is not true. the islamic extremist exemplify the teachings of the koran more than any other muslim out there. Had you read any of the Koran you would know that, here are a few example passages:

    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)

    There are several others, and all the stuff about a religion of peace is a joke. The Islamic faith teaches that anything written chronologically later in the Koran supersedes anything written chronologically earlier in the Koran. Researching this we find that all the stuff about peace, love and harmony was written when Mohammad was a small cult leader in Mecca. However the conquest stuff reflects his time in Medina. All this is justified by them saying, God said that any revelation received later shows the correct stance on an issue. By their very nature God is an unchangeable unmovable force that cannot fluctuate. This clearly shows the influence and creation of a person who had no power or influence, and then achieved great power and influence. They put all their “holiest places” over the shrines of previous temples, in India, Palestine and now in America, showing they defeated these, and as Capitalism was our religion, I say they worked. It has been too soon for them to put a temple on Ground zero, and they know that we would never allow it, but the time may come one day when they do, declaring that a great holy place though it has no spiritual relevance, wake up people, get your collective head out of your collective rear-end and stop this relativistic BS, its going to destroy this country!

    July 20, 2010 at 11:31 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.