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. Biggest potential horror

    The BIGGEST potential horror with letting "moderate" muslims build a mosque anywhere is that eventually those same "moderate" muslims will either allow or will be coerced into allowing mullahs in their mosques – mullahs whose objective in life is to give hateful and vitriolic speeches. Just look at Britain and parts of Europe, such mullahs have infested large parts of the world only to give hateful speeches and encourage "jihadism" and killing.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:17 pm |
  2. phan22

    a mosque at ground zero is a slap in the face to every american in this country. its probably the worst idea ive ever heard of and will only creates problems, that will create more problems, that will lead to even bigger problems. these muslims just keep throwing it in our face. i dont get it..

    July 20, 2010 at 12:16 pm |
  3. Jimbo

    whether or not the terrorists are "true Muslims" they toppled the tower in the name of Islam. They shouted God is great as their planes crashed and murdered thousands, and the God in their minds was in fact Allah. Building a mosque near the site of their atrocite is a slap in the face to all of the love ones who still deal with the pain every day of their parent, child, relative, spouse, friend who was murdered in the name of Islam.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:16 pm |
  4. Mar

    Thanks, Stephen. Beautiful article. I can only hope that most of our fellow Americans are decent enough to share these views.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:14 pm |
  5. Ali

    I am a Muslim and I feel given the sentiment, people who are trying to build this mosque should back out…………there is no point in building a mosque at the proposed site……although it is not guarantees people who oppose a mosque at this site wouldn’t oppose it in the desert of Nevada.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:14 pm |
  6. Alex in California

    Tell you what.... I will support that mosque being built in ground zero if we can build a synagogue in Mecca. For all my Muslim friends (and I debate this with my muslim friends).... Do you support this?

    July 20, 2010 at 12:13 pm |
  7. missPWNAGE

    this site (comments) is filled with such bigotry and hate... it will continue in an endless cycle until all of you boneheads grow a brain...

    July 20, 2010 at 12:13 pm |
  8. mousegirl

    First of all, I do not believe it is possible to have a 'secular' community center if this area has now been proposed and made public as an affiliate of Islam. (That was the Imam's first mistake) Secondly, I definitely do not agree with those who associate Islam with terrorism, and this mosque as a terrorist affiliate. I think that is a disgusting generalization I do, however,believe that it is extremely selfish of the Imam and those wishing to build the mosque as they care more about restoring their self-image then they do about honoring the wounds of 9/11 that are still so evident in widows and family members of the victims. No, they are not terrorists, but why build a center for Islam right on top of Ground Zero when so many people are still injured by and fearful of the terror that was, in fact, portrayed by a Muslim faction? (I do recognize that this is a drastically radical minority). WHY NOT BUILD IT SOMEWHERE ELSE Also, survivors probably do not want to even THINK about terrorism, so why shove it in their face? they want to move on.

    Additionally, I do not feel that counseling would be effective in preventing terrorism. Depression may be an excuse for suicide, but it certainly not an excuse for mass-murder in the name of God. These jihadists are not depressed and they are certainly not victims. They are hell-bent on American and Israeli destruction/annihilation and no counseling can solve that.

    Some people have compared this concept to building a Hitler memorial in Israel. I do not agree with this comparison. I do think, however, it would be the same as building a GERMAN COMMUNITY CENTER next to Auschwitz Concentration Camp (where most of my entire ancestry was murdered), for the selfish purpose of restoring their self-image post-Holocaust....even though these Germans are clearly not Nazi affiliates.

    In sum, I think a Muslim community center/mosque/anti-terrorist center is an AWESOME IDEA! BUT IT SHOULD NOT BE NEXT TO GROUND ZERO. Bloomberg and Obama have their hands tied here as the mosque is protected under free speech and freedom of assembly, so it is not fair to criticize the government. If they tried to stop it, it would definitely be harmful in the long run as the group could 'cry oppression.' My main reasoning for the 'selfish' claim is that they did NOT propose a secular center. They had to try and clear their name by making it a Muslim center.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:11 pm |
  9. Karen

    Why can they not just build a memorial and a park on the site and around the site and have nothing that would upset anyone who lost someone in the attacks. i just don't get why we have to do something that upsets so many people.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:11 pm |
  10. Dave

    Some Muslims are extremists. Most are not. If there are enough Muslims in NYC to warrant a mosque in Lower Manhattan, so be it. It is their right under the first amendment to freely practice their religion, and ANY argument against this mosque being built is racist and bigoted. This is nothing but American ignorance at its worst.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:10 pm |
    • RJ

      True........But not there.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
  11. Rex

    A dumb "feel good" article, out of tune with reality. SNAP !!!! There is a real world out there.

    Islam. The religion of peace? Lets start...beheadings, Talibans, cutting of limbs, whippings, women's rights (?), breaking childrens arm with a truck (for stealing), etc etc.

    Why don't you go print this in Saudi Arabia and built a church in Mecca. The send me a postcard...LOL.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:09 pm |
    • Widad

      Congrat's REX out of all the 700 plus comments posted...yours by far is the most ignorant. I just hope you dont have any children to pass your ignorance on.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:18 pm |
    • a1

      so the way you are Saying... Christianity about Mass Murdering? Throwing Atom Bombs? Starting pointless baseless wars?

      July 21, 2010 at 3:16 am |
  12. CNN once again shows its colors

    This article makes me want to throw up. Clearly the message those who are building this Islamic center is not one of peace, but of a mockery of what is now the most hallowed ground of the new Millenium. Get off your high horse Mr. Religious scholar and open your eyes.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:08 pm |
  13. It is not about Islam at all

    People are not entirely rational creatures. We all have feelings and are affected by symbols. The discussion, in my opinion, is on an entirely wrong subject. It should not be about whether Islam is good or bad at all.
    September 11th traumatized many thousands of people deeply. For them, a mosque at Ground Zero is a painful symbol. Are they "right"? Probably not. But is is utterly irrelevant. What matters is that their trauma and pain deserve respect, whether it is "right" or "wrong". If a friend of mine was badly bitten by a dog and developed a traumatic reaction to it, I will not bring my friendly golden retriever to his house. I know that my dog is the kindest creature, and I know that his reaction is not fully "rational" but I will respect his pain. Wouldn't you?
    This is all there is to talk about. If anything makes me angry about the project it is not related to Islam. It is about the people, Muslim or otherwise, who want to shove this project down the throats of people traumatized by September 11th, however "irrational" it might be, without the slightest respect to their pain.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
  14. Jim

    There is no place for a any religion there. Putting a mosque there is clearly insulting and if you don't get that you're lost in your hyper PC mind. I don't want a church or a synagogue there either.

    All the religionists are destroying this planet.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
  15. New Yorker

    I've read many of these comments, and really it shows how ingnorant many people are to Islam and Christianity as well as to New York. Over 300 muslims died in the WTC on 9/11. Countless amount of muslims were most likely running for their lives like everyone else that day who were there because, most of the street vendors in New York, especially in that area are muslim. There is a mosque a couple of blocks away in that financial district. We're not at war with Islam, although people like Bill O'Reilly, Fox News and the Tea Party would like you to think. The first country to accept the U.S. as a country was a muslim country, Morocco, even before Britain and France. The majority of muslims don't even condone 9/11 and Islam definately does not condone it or permit it. Read the Qu'ran, it's not as bloody as the old testament. The fanatics who preach terror of any religion are ignorant people who cause mischief and a minority even though the tv would have you believe otherwise. The mosque being built is not insensitive and the NYC gov't don't think so either. It's ignorant, racist people who listen to soundbytes and don't read most times who spew hatred that they hear like parrots. All of the muslims in America, of which there is a lot and there's peace. And when you here of violence its someone violating them and not the other way around. All the muslims in the world and the only major incident involving muslims before 9/11 was the 1993 WTC bombing and the gulf war which was muslims killing muslims. And every other thing you here is someone invading or killing muslims in muslim lands, albania and serbian wars (kosovo ethnic cleansing of muslims) during the Clinton administration, and many more examples, know something before you begin talking.


    July 20, 2010 at 12:05 pm |
    • Cheryl

      But.......but.........if Muslims were also killed on 9/11.......the terrorists or Muslim leaders don't care. Look......they murder their own in their own countries by the thousands. Do you really think they care that there were Muslims in the twin towers? They would just call them heroes or martyrs.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
  16. Abby

    911 murderers killed in the name of Islam. Ironic. Seems like these extremists bombed the twin towers just to make room for a mosque in the area. Another victory for the Islam extremists. Scary to me that they might use this as a headquarter. Who can stop them now? Don't forget 911. Build somewhere else.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:05 pm |
  17. Scott

    Build the Mosque, Please send me some pigs to raise in Afghanistan . Iam stationed here people I know are dying so you can have the freedom to write this crap. NO MOSQUE

    July 20, 2010 at 12:05 pm |
  18. Jeff B.

    We ARE at war with Islam – simply because Islam is at war with us.
    True, there were "only" 19 people who flew planes that day. ARE we to believe that the heightened security at airports and other security measures are aimed at those 19 ?
    It is aimed at terrorists which, is perpetrated by Muslims the overwhelming percentage of the time – OK, fine – so you'll say that there are "only" thousands of terrorists vs. a billion "Muslims" in the world, so what's the problem ? The problem is that, for every terrorist, there are THOUSANDS who aid, abet, hide, support and sympathize with him (or her).
    LOOK at the Koran. LOOK at the mission statement of those ISLAMIC groups. LOOK at the cries of "Death to America" occurring ON OUR OWN SOIL – IN NEW YORK CITY !
    The issue of the "Cordova" in SPAIN, is MOST telling ?
    WHY 2 blocks from ground zero ?
    You libs who would find 1.4999 Billion Muslims who advocate OUR deaths would STILL advocate the mosque be built because of that ONE who would not so advocate.
    Your political correctness KILLS me and mine.
    "There are non so blind as those who WILL not see".

    July 20, 2010 at 12:05 pm |
  19. Ajew

    it's definitely not a bad idea. Whether it's a good idea lies in the tolerance of non-believers. We cannot continue to correlate religion with fanaticism. Although religion does create fanatics, the majority of religious people are peaceful, especially in America. Short of a box-cutting factory, it would be completely anti-American to deny any facility to be built upon ground zero. This would also send a clear-cut message to the Islamic world: You can live with us in peace.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:03 pm |
  20. fed up

    muslims can have their mosques, but by no means should it ever be placed next to an area of such a horrific event in american history. it's time we stop worying about insulting someone and worry about what it means to be an American! Too many times have we offered the olive branch to only have snapped in half and beaten wtih it.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:03 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.