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. Dilesh

    I have no problem with a mosque being built there. The Islam religion is not violent. A group of radicals who hate America decided to fly a plane in to the world trade center. That doesn't mean all followers of Islam believe that. And this is not on the site of ground zero, but 2 blocks away. I am all for a memorial to be built at the site of ground zero, but if these people want a mosque to be built there and they should have the right too.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:03 pm |
  2. jmase

    No mosque! Bad choice for that spot

    July 20, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
  3. patti


    July 20, 2010 at 12:01 pm |
  4. andrea

    I agree with a previous comment made. Not only should a mosque be built... but a church, and a synagogue, and a buddhist temple, and anything else you can possibly think of to show religious tolerance and equality. live in PEACE!

    July 20, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  5. shiney bulb

    Your comments were right on target Maria.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  6. Sayeed

    The religions of the books (Quran, Bible, and Torah) do not preach killing innocent men, women, and children. The people who do these acts and hide behind religion are not religious people, they use it as a scapegoat. I am a proud Muslim American and I hate all terrorists. Two things that were taught to me at an early age were 1- if you want respect for your religion you have to respect all religions. 2- Life is precious, taking a life is prohibited and an unforgiven sin. I know there are many people like me, good Muslims, patriotic Americans who lead well integrated lives with the fabric of our communities. we have friends who are Jewish, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists.....with respect and tolerance for all.

    Now some facts. for more than 20 years there was a mosque on Warren Street just 4 blocks north of ground zero. they now have a smaller place on the same street due to loss of their lease. Now with the construction of the Cordoba house( mosque+community center) there will be another mosque 2 blocks closer to the ground zero, So what is the big deal? Nobody objected to the Warren Street Mosque that used to pack close 600 people on Fridays for 20+ years. People dont seem to have issues with OTBs, porn shops, and strip clubs that are all around ground zero. This community center will only improve the neighborhood.

    Please do your own research instead of listening to people like Mike Wheeler and others who have their own agenda in brandishing everything Muslim as terrorism. the best way to learn about us is to come and sit down with us at the mosque and ask us questions, I am sure you will find us just like you , ordinary Americans struggling to make a living, make a better life for their families and integrate into the larger fabric of New York so they can give back to the community as the community so generously accepted them and provided for them.

    I urge you please do some research so you are aware of the right information and do some research on the nay Sayers too.

    We have a very capable mayor in NYC who has supported this project. Just think don't you think they did their research and background search on the people involved before approving this project?

    July 20, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  7. patti Solino

    The Muslim religion is far from peace loving. They teach killing those who are not of their faith. Some argue that's not true but it is in their "bible" and in their actions of some. It is tradition that they build mosques where they have conquered over the centuries. That is why they want to build their mosque at ground zero. Look at their history and know what you are talking about. This isn't about religious tolerance which I totally support. But it is about their religion and the muslims establishing their mosque in a conquered area. Wake up America. Yes, all are free to worship any way they want in this country but that does not transcend into them making a mockery of our freedoms and construct their monument celebrating our defeat on 9/11

    July 20, 2010 at 11:59 am |
  8. Lloyd S

    A mosque at Ground Zero, or anywhere within 10 miles of it, is the craziest idea ever. Of course all muslims are not terrorists but those who are will say "we won!" America, New York, do NOT get caught in the web of religious freedom. Sometimes you just have to say no and this is one of those times.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:59 am |
  9. Cheryl


    July 20, 2010 at 11:58 am |
    • tahira

      Shariah law in the UK? You've been watching too much Fox News. Have you ever BEEN to the UK? Do you even know anyone who's ever been to the UK?

      July 21, 2010 at 12:21 pm |
  10. krippendorf

    "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

    Anti-mosque = anti-American, pure and simple. All else is just rhetoric by the right-wing fear-mongering machine, which conveniently ignores the constitution when it suits them.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:56 am |
  11. David

    Come on the real reason they want to built this cultural centre/mosque near ground zero is to gain more followers and promote the Islamic message.Similar thing happened in London with a proposed mega-Mosque some muslims wanted to built to actually loom over the Olympic stadium so it would be visable when the worlds eyes are on the Olympics in London,this of course was rejected out of hand.New York is a huge huge city there are a number of mosque already in the city if they want to build another then fine build it somewhere else where is does'nt cause such offence to the majority of people including muslims.What you will do by allowing this mosque is risk turning Manhatton into a religous warzone with multiple religions also wanting to spread their message via holy buildings in the area.Secularism is the future religion should remain a personal issue and certainly not effect or insult other people.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:56 am |
  12. Somahnd

    Credit to Brandon: "Okay, I am a Christian. And some of my best friends are Muslims. They've never tried to slit my throat or convert me or anything. We can all talk about our religions peacefully. What happened on 9/11 was a tragedy and murder. But they were committed by Al Qaeda. They claimed to represent Islam but they don't. They represent ignorance, prejudice, violence, intolerance, and hate. Hate is not limited to any race, religion, nation, people, gender, age, or culture. There are people that are white Christians that would do the same if they had the chance. In the Vietnam War, the 11th Brigade, Americal Division entered the village of My Lai. "This is what you've been waiting for – search and destroy – and you've got it," said their superior officers. A short time later the killing began. They killed 3/4 of the original civilian population in My Lai. So are all Americans vicious, mercilous killers? No. In 1995 Timothy McVeigh, a Christian extremist, bombed a government building in Oklahoma City. He killed 168 people including 19 children under the age of 6. Adolf Hitler slaughtered millions of Jews, Poles, Gypsies, just because of their race/religion. So does this prove all nazis are bad? Yes, yes it does. Does it prove all Germans are bad? No, no it doesn't. It's time to heal, it is never time to forget but it is always the time to heal and work together. Most Muslims aren't murderous freaks like Al Qaeda. They're moderate and nice, well some of them are, some aren't. Just like in any other group. So get over your discrimination of Islam and any others you have about any other races or religions and let's start healing."

    July 20, 2010 at 11:56 am |
  13. sammy

    NO NO and NO to the mosque

    July 20, 2010 at 11:55 am |
  14. Look at Google Maps: It's three blocks away


    July 20, 2010 at 11:54 am |
  15. John Herman, military retired

    My take – bad idea. Can cause lingering hatred. Let it return to its original purpose of world trade. Brings up vague images of the Islamic Temple in Jerusalem being built on the site of the old Jewish Temple. Not quite the same, but eerily similar enough.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:54 am |
  16. Bob


    July 20, 2010 at 11:53 am |
    • a1

      Europe VS Islam or Europe Vs Hizbullah?

      July 20, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
    • Adibese

      Hezbollah is simply following what's in the Koran. It is the world versus Islam according to the Koran.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
    • a1

      Hizbullah is not following Koran, the have twisted ideology. Islam is Religion of tolerance.

      July 21, 2010 at 3:03 am |
  17. michael

    Where is Lou Dobbs?

    July 20, 2010 at 11:53 am |
  18. Linda

    I believe that religious freedom can pose conflict with social and moral community conduct. Any radical beliefs, no matter what religion they begin with, must not be tolerated. Otherwise the entire country is a breeding ground for terrorism. The way the Quran has been distorted makes Islam very dangerous. I for one do not want more muslims or Christians or Jews or hindus in this country. I want more people who can practice tolerance instead of shoving ideaologies on one another like pushing heroin to an addict. We must create communities instead of religious zeal. We must look each neighbor in the eye and be tolerant and loving out of social consciousness but be mindful and aware of festering zeal.

    July 20, 2010 at 11:53 am |
    • realworld

      You don't want people shoving ideologies on us, but you only want to allow atheists in the country. OK.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:01 pm |
  19. Mike

    What a stupid idea ....why don't we invite the Neo-Nazis and the KKK to open a meeting hall next door to the mosque ...

    July 20, 2010 at 11:52 am |
  20. Look at Google Maps: It's three friggin blocks away

    it's not at ground zero. Look at the map...

    July 20, 2010 at 11:52 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.