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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. Rray

    Explain to me why the center of worship in ALL mosques is called "mehrab"; meaning:THE PLACE FOR WAR!!!!!!

    July 20, 2010 at 11:52 am |
    • realworld

      Explain to me why for for 18 years I've live within 100 yards of a (small) mosque, but am still waiting for any terrorism from it?

      July 20, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
  2. Nathan Prophet

    This is an insane idea from a disturbed person. Islamic leaders in America should know not to even suggest that a mosque be built anywhere near the Twin Towers site. That is ludicrous. The fact is that ALL the 9/11 terrorist were Muslim and did their dirty deed in the name of Islam adn Allah. Like it or not, there IS a kind of battle going on between Islam and the rest of teh world. Many Muslims continue to support violence through not speaking out against it, and through financing it. They are not assimilated into our society and they wish to covert the entire world to Islam either through voluntary conversion or through eradication. Wake up and see reality.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:51 am |
  3. Tom

    This will tear the very fabric of this country. To allow this mosque to built is to comend a terrorist act.
    where is the patriotism of this country?

    July 20, 2010 at 11:51 am |
  4. Look at Google Maps: It's three friggin blocks away

    Look at Google Maps, people. This building is not 'ON' ground zero or on anybody's grave, it's three blocks over. It's at 45 Park Place. There are like ten other buildings between the site and ground zero.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:51 am |
  5. Ted

    "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero"

    You know you wouldn't be able to express your opinion in most Muslim countries right Stephen? Thanks but no thanks for your opinion here.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:50 am |
  6. Jobber

    being from new york city the majority here doesn't care if this mosque is built since that is what makes the city so great. for some reason people like palin and people from other states who do not understand what new york is all about have opinions on the matter. I guess we should change the nickname of MSG from the Mecca of basketball to the holy church of jesus's basketball as well just to make a point....

    July 20, 2010 at 11:50 am |
  7. Pink Hijab

    Islam is the most beautiful religion in the world, and keeps growing stronger every day. Majority of muslims are peace loving people and thefreedom of being able to build a place of worship wherever we need one, is what makes this country beautiful.
    Don't let your ignorance and what you hear and read on the news blind you and keep you away from perhaps learning and embracing about Islam.
    Allah is great.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:49 am |
  8. Ted

    "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero."

    Thank GOD. Seems like a poorly constructed argument for the mosque. Thanks but no thanks to your opinions Stephen.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:48 am |
  9. SH

    in this country we have places to worship...but to replace a landmark to remind us who destroyed it? that's madness!! what is our country coming to? have some damn morals.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:47 am |
  10. Dale

    Imam (Arabic, “leader” or “exemplar”), in general usage in Islam, the political head of the Muslim community or the person who leads prayer services.

    So what about the radical IMAMS brainwashing and Teaching hate to Muslims here in the United States, and in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe (Teaching Over The INRERNET) and from (SAUDI ARABIA and other Arab countries).
    Why is there not something being done about RADICALS by Muslims that say they are good Muslims.

    No Ground Zero mosque they will be brainwashing and Teaching hate there. That is SAUDI ARABIA PLAN.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:47 am |
  11. kelley

    America, founded on religous freedom, as long as it is your religion, and not someone elses.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:47 am |
  12. Nadeem khan

    It seems that everyone has an opinion on Islam, like everyone knows what Islam is all about. As a Muslim its frustrating because its very clear reading these comments that non of you have any clue because non of you have ever bothered to study islam. Its understandable where all this resentment is coming from but this is more of a reason to actually find out a little bit about islam as a religion and what it teaches. not from islamaphobic websites and media but search online and find out. these terrorist are also ignorant folk who are brainwashed and dont have a clue about what islam stands for and what it means. Islam is the only religion who recognizes all other religions and prophets and teaches tolerance. find out yourself.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:47 am |
  13. Nancy

    Sure build your mosque but not there. There are plenty of other places you can build on. Please have respect for the people who have not forgotten 9/11. They suffered enough. Why should we always forgive and forget... Not this time... Respect us too!!!

    July 20, 2010 at 11:46 am |
  14. SCOTT

    WHY ONLY PUT A MOSQUE BUILD A PLACE FOR ALL WORSHIPING PEOPLE FOR ALL DIFFERENT RELIGIONS, MAKE IT A MEGA HOUSE OF GOD .

    July 20, 2010 at 11:45 am |
    • t

      It's not just a mosque. It's an interfaith center as well for all religions to particpate in.

      July 20, 2010 at 1:29 pm |
  15. channelgrace

    My first impulse when I heard about the Mosque was no, this is not a good idea. Once I really started to think about it however, I realized that this is exactly the right thing to do. It shows the entire world that this is what we believe, what our founders believed, and what is right. That people should be free to believe as they choose, to worship as they choose, and to congregate in houses of worship with others who believe as they do. Others have said it here and I will repeat: if we allow terrorists to change us, to change our fundamental beliefs about who we are and what our country is, we have lost. We must stand up and refuse to allow the negative, hateful words and prejudices in these posts to manipulate us. We ALL still grieve over 911, but allowing those who perpetrated the event to succeed in changing us is something that must not be tolerated.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:45 am |
  16. MQ

    Islam is an evil anachronism that hides behind the veil (no pun) of religion. This gesture of building a mosque at this location is a thumb to the nose and a middle finger to NY and America.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:44 am |
  17. ISpeakAmerican

    Two points: First, this is NOT about religious tolerance! Islam is as protected here as any other religion. No one is saying don't build the mosque! JUST DON'T BUILD IT AT GROUND ZERO. It will be a tribute to victory like it or not. Second point: Keep repeating – Not all Muslims are terrorists, BUT, ALL the terrorists HAVE been MUSLIMS! Wake Up!

    July 20, 2010 at 11:44 am |
    • tahira

      Is Georgia far enough away from Ground Zero for you? Because there have been two recent cases of mosques being denied building permits in suburban Atlanta within the last year. So where will the xenophobes let us build exactly?

      July 21, 2010 at 12:16 pm |
  18. don

    terrorists is at home

    July 20, 2010 at 11:42 am |
  19. EVA

    I am a United States Marine. I am Jewish. I am a patriotic American. I believe preventing this mosque from being built is trampling our first amendment rights. We cannot lump all Muslims together into a category of terrorists. In fact, the number of extremist Muslims is less than 1%. While serving as a Marine, Muslims have been the most welcoming, gracious people I have met. There are extremists in every religion, but we can not allow this to ignite a fear so great in us that we change our way of thinking and limit our freedoms. Muslims did not fly into those towers, terrorists did. For those of you who don't believe that Islam, in its purest form, is a religion of peace, you need to become more educated before you come into a public forum and make demeaning remarks about those different from you.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:41 am |
    • tahira

      Eva,

      May the peace and protection of God be with you. Thank you for your service to our country and your words here. It is killing me to have my religion hijacked by these crazy people and my fellow countrymen falling into the trap of believing that garbage. I can hardly describe it. But your words really touched me.

      Thank you!

      July 21, 2010 at 12:14 pm |
  20. Rray

    How naive and gullible! Islam is not a religion, but merely a "nationalist extreme" (1500-yr-old and arabic) propagated by hate and war. Most people don't know that the center of worship in all the mosques around the world (where they bow towards) is called "mehraab" which means "the place of war"!!!! and it is a derivetive of the verb "herb" which means to fight, to go to war!!!!
    Also, how many decades took us to relax on hate groups like KKK, and unfortunately, in the name of freedom of speech etc., until we finally woke up and differentiated between theory and reality!!!

    July 20, 2010 at 11:41 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.