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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. Dan

    Placing a Mosque at ground zero is a rediculous idea it would be the muslim extremists equivilant to lifting the flag at iwo jima for the allies.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
  2. David

    To everyone that opposes this, do you support removing churches from Oklahoma City? I have an idea what the answer will be.

    Stop being hypocritical.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
    • RJ

      We are not talking about a whole city, only a location within the city. I wouldn't want a Mosque at the Oklahoma bombing site either.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
  3. Dan

    So apparently we must be tolerant of intolerant people

    July 20, 2010 at 12:38 pm |
  4. AJ

    I don't give a damn if 100% of NYers oppose a mosque near ground zero. This is America -founded on freedom of all religions, not just Christian. I can list numerous autrocities committed by Christians in this country, do we still build churches? Not to mention more people have died in the wars following 9/11 then 9/11 itself- where is the outrage there?

    July 20, 2010 at 12:38 pm |
    • Jimbo

      AJ, can you tell me all the incidents in which Christians have flown planes into towers to kill innocent people in the name of Jesus?

      July 20, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
  5. Zip

    If you succumb to the arguments presented here against Islam and the building of the mosque then you are on the exact same level of those that fly airplanes into the WTC and those that paint planes crashing into the WTC in Mosques (ridiculous).
    To a point made earlier if all Muslims were terrorists and Quran preached terrorism this world would be a very different place – the Muslims that show restraint are those that are keeping it from getting to that level – killing Saddam Hossein didn't accomplish that.
    I have been to Mosques across the US, about 10-15 states and countless cities and have not heard one Imam preach terror, neither before or after 9/11.
    I encourage you to keep an open mind about your Muslim neighbors, if you keep them at arms length then you will live in fear – don't do that to yourself and don't do that to America.

    God bless the United States and the World and all his creations!

    July 20, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  6. Burbank

    I think a mosque at that spot is the absolute height of bad taste and insensitivity. Like rubbing salt in the wound. Putting a mosque in that location is just inviting American Militia crazies to come blow it up in retaliation. It could almost be considered a provocation for such. Bad, bad idea!!!

    July 20, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  7. Vinny

    I don't see why this is even being argued. its like JUDGING every religion for every crime they ever committed. Should we ban all Catholic churches from within two blocks of schools or day care centers? of course not! men, women, people of all races and all religions died on September 11th. But horrific crimes done in the name of "religion" have occured for THOUSANDS of years. As with most things in life, take a look at your own beliefs and history before casting judgement on others.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  8. Dan Ferrara

    I can see Mohammed Atta and the rest of his band of crazy wingnuts smiling right now.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:35 pm |
  9. jcoldwater

    I was there on 9/11. I've forgiven. Let them be.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:35 pm |
  10. Stan

    I think all religion should be outlawed ! Wasnt it a CHRISTIAN that dropped the atom bomb in japan but we dont judge all christians like terrorists do we? Should we not build any churches in Oklahoma City because Timothy McVeigh was a CHRISTIAN....Isnt G W Bush a Born Again Christian and hes authorized the killing of more people then anyone I can remember in the last 10 years so with that thinking every Church should be outlawed for the good of man kind! The other funny thing is that most mulsims DO NOT CONSIDER the hijakers to be muslims but more of a cult you know like David Koresh followers or that crazy crew that drank the cool aide or mormons. Just think if these protesters were to go in and talk to the people what they might find out... These people are just like them, White, black, short tall, funny, mean, nice, smart, stupid, smart and just like the rest of everyone on planet earth...... Maybe just maybe you might learn something new plus you got a better chance of getting shot or robbed or killed or ripped off by your mechanic or bank by your own fellow Americans then you do by Adnan and his cousins....remember dont drink the cool-aide

    July 20, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  11. Grace

    If they really cared about the Americans, they wouldn't build a mosque out of respect. If they see that no one wants it built, then why continue. They have other reasons for building one.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  12. Nicole

    They didn't build an art school at/on auszhwitz.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  13. Robert

    I have one question for the author. How are you sir, going to ensure that there are no radical Imam's preaching there on any given day? I think the idea of a Mosque there is a massive insult to any American, and the thought that radicalized preaching could potentially occur that close to Ground Zero truly sickens me. Who's idea is this? Who is pushing for this to happen? Highly suspect.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  14. Dilesh

    There are americans, be it a few people, who become active in terroristic activities. If they were of the catholic or christian religion, is it fair to say that we should not be able to build a church?

    July 20, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
  15. VT

    Religion in general is a croc...has it done anything good? Ever? Nope.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
  16. joe d

    jews/AIPAC are responsble for 9/11...can we tear down their sinigogs

    July 20, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
  17. Matt

    What basis is there really to not build this mosque? Respect, ok, I see the point but it was not really rational Islamics like the ones who would worship here who attacked the WTC. Christian extremists roam the world, too (anyone ever heard of Hitler?), but churches are still built without question (even in Israel, Judaism's Holy Land). So does this rationale mean we can't have Japanese restaurants or culture in Hawaii out of respect for those killed at Pearl Harbor? They're completely unrelated. Maybe if they wanted to build an Islamic-extremist terrorist camp, I'd take exception. A mosque, no, the majority of Muslims are peaceful members of society, stop discriminating against them.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
  18. kirk

    new yorkers would burn it to the ground

    July 20, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
  19. Dan

    How about we build a Baptist Church in Meca....How do you think that would go?

    July 20, 2010 at 12:29 pm |
    • Melanie

      Not well, as there are a country that doesn't practice freedom of religion. You would have us be like them, wouldn't you?

      July 20, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
  20. RJ

    But why the Mosque on our soil on our memorial

    July 20, 2010 at 12:28 pm |
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About this blog

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.