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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. Alan

    If somebody wants to put a mosque near ground zero, let 'em. Bin Laden and his buddies killed thousands of people of all creeds and religions on Sept 11. What better way of remembering that fact than by putting up a house of worship for the faith he claims to follow?

    If al Qaida are at war with America, they are at war with every muslim (and every Atheist, Buddhist and Christian) that resides there. That's the way it is, and the way it should be.

    Besides, if al Qaida ever wants to make a return for a second attack, why not give them a thoroughly unappetizing target?

    July 20, 2010 at 12:28 pm |
    • VT

      Yeah, they're definitely at war with those who set car bombs in Times Square as well. Idiot.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  2. LL

    I understand the arguments regarding religious tolerance, etc. What I DONT understand is WHY the muslims building this would even want to have it there? I think THEY should be a bit more tolerant/sensitive to the fact that a lot of the people effected may not be so happy with it. It just seems like a move of bad taste. It just seems to me that the more "sensitive" and "tolerant" we are as a country, the more we get walked on and laughed at by everyone else. Sometimes we just have to say enough is enough.

    Furthermore, I don't trust ANY religious organization (especially muslim, im sorry) whose financial backings can't be determined. It is probable that a lot of funding for this mosque is coming directly from the middle east and possibly even organizations affiliated with terrorist activities. Does this still make the construction ok? Does it still show "religious tolerance"?

    July 20, 2010 at 12:27 pm |
    • RJ

      Well Put

      July 20, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
    • PHIL

      Not all muslims are insensative ,but Im not happy with them going through with this when its causeing such concern . I think they need to take the high road and build a hospital and donate it to the city and build thier mosque at a more sensative distance . This dosen't have to happen .

      July 20, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
  3. Andrew Messenger

    My take on it would be: if they will allow the Catholic church to build a cathedral in Mecca, then we should allow them to build a Mosque at Ground Zero. If it is not acceptable to build a Catholic cathedral in Mecca, then is should not be acceptable to build a Mosque at Ground Zero. Very simple.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:27 pm |
    • Sharms

      Okay then, lets a Cathedral in Mecca and a Mosque in the Vatican !!!!!

      July 20, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
  4. Brian

    Considering the terrorist of 9/11 claimed a Holy war against infidels in America on American soil and these terrorist were self proclaimed Islamic, carrying out their acts in the name of Allah. Don't you think it's even a little insulting to place a Islamic mosque near the ground Zero site? The terrorist claimed their actions in the name of Islam. Personally I believe in freedom of Religion but don't the believers of Islam see the insult if the situation was reversed. If American terrorist killed thousands in the name of Christianity, or Jewish Religion publicly claiming a Holy war in a taped confession and a terrorist organization was being hidden by us claiming it's against our Religion to surrender this terrorist to them because of our religious beliefs. Come on now people no Islamic nation would ever allow a Christian or Jewish church built beside ground Zero and if it was built within a year some suicide bomber would destroy it. I don't remember ever being prejudiced against anyone of Islamic faith until the actions of 9/11 and the Islamic attitude of protecting the radical Muslims in the name of Religion. Anything pertaining to the terrorist is a great insult to thousands that died at ground Zero. The Islamic radical terrorist brought this war to America and brought a great divided view of all Islam. Pretty much the way many Muslims view us as infidels, Zionist, and many other things we've been called.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:26 pm |
  5. Perry Redd

    Whether it's a good idea or not, they have the right to do it. White Americans say that all the time when it comes to making racist comments or promoting racist values. What's good for the goose is good for the gander...quit crying over liberty

    July 20, 2010 at 12:26 pm |
  6. James Andrews

    There could be no greater symbol of our openess, fairness and respect for all cultures than to build this mosque there. Those (delete expletive) terrorists came here to tear down the symbols of American greatness and power. We have returned the favor by demonstrating our power. Now let us finish the job by demonstrating our greatness! We are at war with extremism. Let those who hate us now see our true greatness. Build a mosque at ground zero in HONOR of those who fell. They did not fall to Islam. They fell to extremists. Let those lives lost testify to the fact that we are a nation of many colors, many cultures and many faiths. We are FREE. Do you think Saudi Arabia would allow the same in their country? We are FREE. The Palestinians cheered on international television as we were attacked. We are FREE. Iran is to execute a woman who confessed adultery only after 99 lashes. We are FREE. We are GREAT and we are FREE!

    July 20, 2010 at 12:26 pm |
    • kirk

      new yorkers would dstroy it before it was even finished

      July 20, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
    • RJ

      That's all balony.......leave it alone.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  7. Sharms

    There is some about this article that most of you are missing. Last time I checked, we are still living in America. And dont we still have freedom of speech and expression. Look how much we have changed, how hateful and intolerant we have become, and how willing we are to attack, belittle, berate, and abuse someone whose opinion differs from ours. We dislike and bring sanctions against countries where democracy and freedom of speech is stifled, yet, we do not respect that element of our own constitution, and seek to shut it down when the opinion differs from our own.

    Yes I am outraged and and angered by what happened on 9/11, but I will not be blinded by it. Everytime one American turns on and attacks (verbal or otherwise) another American, Osama and those who plot to to harm us wins and slowly achieves what they ultimately set out out to do. In the words of President Lincoln ""A house divided against itself cannot stand."

    Right or wrong, the author of the above article has the right to express his opinion. Over 20 years ago, I emigrated to the US from apartheid South Africa and its policies of hatred, seperation, and suppression. Today I find myself in a country that more-and-more each day reminds me of what I tried to leave behind.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
  8. HistoryStudent

    I have taken extensive college level classes (and above) about Islamic history and architecture so my view on this a bit torn in two. While I believe that America should truly practice religious freedom to any degree I also look at the cultural aspect involved.

    1. History as shown that Muslims DO in fact build mosques when they conquer an area to show their dominance in the region/ victory. Ex: Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock, Córdoba in Spain, Damascus in Syria, Constantinople/ Istanbul(Hagia Sophia) and along the Iberian Peninsula. This is just a short list so, hisorically if there was any malice to what was going on, its not something new.

    2. I think the families affected by 9/11 should have the –largest- say in what should happen at the ground Zero, given they are the ones who suffered most on that day.

    3. Even I arch a brow to the Sept. 11th opening….

    July 20, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
  9. whatever 48

    Why do so many ask for "tolerance" when those who you are asking tolerance for are totally intolerant of you and I? And please stop saying that our country was founded on "religious tolerance". Study some history. Our nation was founded on Biblical principles. Religious freedom. Freedom to worship God. Those who are trying to destroy our nation, culture, way of life will have NO tolerance for you, unless you believe as they do.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:24 pm |
  10. Alex

    yor Blumberg and Co., you have no respect for the victim of the radical muslim propaganda against all of us! Please think again if you could, change your mind! It is not too late.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:24 pm |
  11. RJ

    Are you kidding? One question- Why do they want to put it there? They can have it anywhere they want and it sounds like they have their own money. But WHY??????? The reality – We are a Nation of Greed (Someone was paid off for it). No Mosque. Its our memorial.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:23 pm |
  12. JD

    In a two block radius of the World Trade Center site, there are EIGHT Starbucks ... now THAT is a travesty!!! Who could possibly need that many Starbucks in such a small area?

    July 20, 2010 at 12:23 pm |
  13. Rich

    Not ready for this one yet. Poll Americans – the answer is NO. Do you think it would have been possible to erect a Japanese house of worship on Pearl Harbor less than a decade after the attack???? I don't think so. Time heals wounds, and these wounds have not healed. The muslim religion/belief/whatever is not to blame for the bombings, BUT, the terrorists did this in the name of their religion. Again, a HORRIBLE idea to place a Mosque anywhere near ground zero. Just keep stirring the pot NY.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:22 pm |
  14. JMH

    People seek to forget that many of the victims of those terrorists on 9/11 were peaceful, decent Muslims. Let th mosque be built as a tribute to all of them as well as the others who died that day.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:21 pm |
  15. mondaijin

    Stephen Prothero a "religious scholar"... Bahhhhwwwaaaaaahhh... BS... The US is build on the freedom of speech and not political a$$licking. Islam teaches and justifies terrorist activities, honor killings, etc... It is not a religion, it is a club of cowards and egotistical machos trying to hang on to their power...Christianity is not much better, but at least evolution and reality finally caught up to the Vatican, and they do not behave like animals today...

    July 20, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
  16. Rahul

    I think it will not be a good idea to build. It can be a memorial for the people who died in that accident irrespective of binding to any religion.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
  17. Chandler, AZ

    Let me ask Muslims a qestion...Would any of the Muslim country let us a build a Temple if any other faith would have done 9/11. Give me a friggin break. I live in this country and love it, but 9/11 was a slap to this open soceity and there has to be limit for the openess.
    Now a question to the readers...Guess what my religion is. I am a Pakistani born American with a Muslim faith, and I don't like a Mosque being built near Ground Zero.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:19 pm |
    • harry

      There are churches and temples in the Muslim countries of UAE (Dubai), churches in Lebonon Pakistan and Morocco. And there are also Synagogues in Morocco.

      You might want to visit them?

      August 3, 2010 at 1:18 pm |
  18. Seriously people...in Manhattan

    Everything is a couple of blocks from ground zero. This mosque will not be 'On' ground Zero, or 'across the street' from ground zero. It's several blocks away, and there are buildings in front of it.

    Look it up on google maps... 45 park place, new york

    July 20, 2010 at 12:18 pm |
  19. Rex

    JD. It's true but I am not going to prove it to you. Go on the Internet. Do your homework yourself. You'll find it in mosque all over Pakistan.

    By the way. When was the last time a Christian Religious leader issued a Fatwah to kill.?

    Religion of Peace. Yeah right. Then call me a bigot.

    By the way. Are there any democracies in the Middle East? Could u chat like this?

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

      I did search on the internet and I didn't find it. But then again, why should I have to prove YOUR statement, you said there's evidence and I think there isn't. So, let's see the pictures.

      Have Christian leaders called for fatwas? Well, I doubt it, since "fatwa" is an arabic word and a legal pronouncement of Islam (which isn't always a call for someone to die by the way.) Talk about a loaded question! But on the larger issue, Westboro Baptist proclaims the death of U.S. Soldiers, homosexuals, and Jews as God's work every day. Christian groups had a website with the pictures of abortion doctors that called for their murder and crossed out their faces after they died. So, you know, I think there are enough nut jobs to go around.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:35 pm |
  20. mattewilliams

    This shows how the current administration and its cohorts are usurping the country. Now they want the country to bow to one religion. Well for all of you here's something to think about.

    Word of the Day: Dhimmitude

    Dhimmitude is the Muslim system of controlling non-muslim populations conquered through jihad. Specifically, it is the TAXING of non-muslims in exchange for tolerating their presence AND as a coercive means of converting conquered remnants to islam.

    One such idea is the "ObamaCare" bill - it is the establishment of Dhimmitude and Sharia muslim diktat in the United States . Muslims are specifically exempted from the government mandate to purchase insurance, and also from the penalty tax for being uninsured. Islam considers insurance to be "gambling", "risk-taking" and "usury" and is thus banned. Muslims are specifically granted exemption based on this. How convenient. So I, John Smith, as a Christian, will have crippling IRS liens placed against all of my assets, including real estate, cattle, and even accounts receivables, and will face hard prison time because I refuse to buy insurance or pay the penalty tax. Meanwhile, Louis Farrakhan will have no such penalty and will have 100% of his health needs paid for by the de facto government insurance. Non-muslims will be paying a tax to subsidize muslims. Period. This is Dhimmitude.

    Dhimmitude serves two purposes: it enriches the muslim masters AND serves to drive conversions to islam. In this case, the incentive to convert to islam will be taken up by those in the inner-cities as well as the godless Generation X, Y and Z types who have no moral anchor. If you don't believe in Christ to begin with, it is no problem whatsoever to sell Him for 30 pieces of silver. "Sure, I'll be a muslim if it means free health insurance and no taxes. Where do I sign, bro?"

    July 20, 2010 at 12:18 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.