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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. Sharon

    9/11 happened in the name of Allah, so now we're going to build a structure for them to worship him some more??? come ON!!! We need to respect minorities WITHOUT offending the majority. Mosques can be built anywhere...religious freedom is so important; but on THAT ground? Please America, stop being so PC that we spit in our own faces.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:50 pm |
  2. Wisest1

    Allowing a mosque to be built on ground-zero is akin to a conquering army peeing on the charred corpses of their vanquished foe.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:50 pm |
    • smarter

      or building a US army barracks on Mulsim holy land? Good point. But you're probably not wise enough to get the relevance of that.

      July 19, 2010 at 7:28 pm |
    • Jake Jones

      "Holy Land" lol.

      This is one of the core problems: we won't be able to go anywhere as long as people still harbor such primitive ways of thinking through mysticism.

      July 19, 2010 at 9:22 pm |
  3. Wolf

    The Muslim religion is flawed. Building a mosque will only reinforce this Muslim crusade of hate towards America.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:49 pm |
    • smarter

      And clearly Christianity is perfect. We know a lot of Christians and Catholic leaders molest children, so by your reasoning we should stop building all churches, because any religion that would let this happen is clearly flawed. Don't agree? Maybe you're a pedophile. Or an idiot.

      July 19, 2010 at 7:23 pm |
    • smarter

      @ Lola – you're completely missing the point. Making broad statements like "the Muslim religion is flawed" really does not help the conversation. All religions are flawed because all religions are misinterpreted and abused by idiots and radicals. Trying to say "my religion is better than yours" is a lose lose argument and only leads to war and violence. All major religions are equally guilty of this.

      July 20, 2010 at 1:32 am |
  4. bcmacman

    This author is one sick puppy! We ARE at war with Islam!

    July 19, 2010 at 6:49 pm |
    • John

      If we're at war with Islam, then why are our troops stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, with the full support of those ISLAMIC nations? We are at war with terrorists. If you think all Muslims are terrorists, you don't know enough to offer an informed opinion.

      July 19, 2010 at 9:05 pm |
  5. Joey

    Are you kidding me? I cannot believe this opinion even got posted. While I agree that Islam does not teach blowing up people, we should also take a look at the group planning to build this Mosque – they are the extremists. To those who proposed this Mosque, it will be their trophy!

    July 19, 2010 at 6:48 pm |
    • amyc

      I don't see how the group wanting to build the community center and mosques in and extremist group. Please elaborate on that...and saying that they are extremists just because they are Muslim won't cut it.

      July 20, 2010 at 1:38 am |
    • Joey

      The leader of the group had already suggested that the USA should lean more toward Sharia law

      July 20, 2010 at 12:27 pm |
  6. Andrew James

    Gee, T-Tar calling people cowards while using a pathetically childish psedonym, use your real name, put your address down, no that would require courage. T Tar, what a pathetic cowardly name to hide behind. Ha Ha

    July 19, 2010 at 6:48 pm |
  7. BeCoolNow

    No Mosque at Ground Zero! Its just too sore of a subject. Its not necessary and a mosque in another part of town would serve the same (supposed benign) purpose without negatively affecting so many people. The only reason it was even proposed was to upset people.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:48 pm |
  8. rashad

    You my friend should go back to the streets and study how muslims live their lives in America. Forget what you see on TV, forget what you heard, GO into a Mosque, STUDY what people are doing, and SEE for yourself that Islam and Muslims in Mosques are like your everyday families getting together to build a better future.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:48 pm |
  9. Professor

    Muslims didn't blow up the WTC, terrorists did. And they tried to associate their murderous act with a holy war. If we consider all Muslims to be the problem and illustrate that viewpoint by prohibiting the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero then we have allowed those terrorists the satisfaction of yet another victory.

    This is America and we cherish our freedom of religion. End of story.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:47 pm |
    • T Tar

      build it elsewhere NOT THERE. WAKE UP. what the hell is wrong with Americans????? NO MOSQUE there. build it in Penn where the plane went down, what's wrong with that. for that matter build it on a barge so we can push it out to sea.

      July 19, 2010 at 6:54 pm |
    • Cam

      Well put, Professor. Everyone who opposes this should remember two things: 1. No one is building a mosque ON Ground Zero. 2. There are several centers of faith – including Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist, among others – within just a few blocks of the WTC site. Don't believe me? Come walk around, I'll show you myself. To specifically bar the construction of a mosque would be the most un-American act possible, and a slap in the face to those who have sacrificed their lives to protect the tenets of our beliefs as a people – religious tolerance chief among them.

      July 19, 2010 at 9:00 pm |
  10. Sil

    I love freedom, I love New York and I love America. I agree with the writer; If we don't allow the mosque, the terrorists win.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:47 pm |
  11. Alan

    I think we should build a mosque at ground zero................and put a 100 foot billboard next to it with a picture of Muhammad

    July 19, 2010 at 6:46 pm |
    • JS

      I totally agree...that will quickly settle the 'how peaceful and free' the Islam 'religion' actually is...that is after they hunt down anyone slightly associated with the billboard.

      July 19, 2010 at 10:37 pm |
  12. Carson

    Are you kidding me? Isnt the general rule of thumb to build a mosque to show you conquered a land such as when muslim arabs occupied egypt and Cairo is now known as the city of a thousand minarets (which is a mosque).

    July 19, 2010 at 6:46 pm |
    • amyc

      "Are you kidding me? Isnt the general rule of thumb to build a mosque to show you conquered a land such as when muslim arabs occupied egypt and Cairo is now known as the city of a thousand minarets (which is a mosque)."

      The general rule of thumb is to build a mosque where they want to worship. There are a couple of mosques in the city where I live, and I'm pretty sure that the Muslims haven't conquered Texas. What about when Spain sent conquistadors over to conquer South America and Mexico? They built RC churches there too, does that mean that all Christian churches are built to show that the land was conquered by Christians? No, that's ridiculous. People build churches, temples, and mosques for worshiping.

      July 20, 2010 at 1:35 am |
  13. Tom

    When domestic terroists blow up an abortion clinic, should be forbid a church from being built anywhere nearby? It's really sad to read all these racist comments. Our nation is based on religious freedom. Yet, people are stereotyping all Muslims as terrorists. When people do this, this is exactly what the terrorists want... to create division between Muslims and others. Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran.... it doesn't matter. We have churchs located by schools, even though we know of some of the disgusting crimes committed by priests.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:44 pm |
    • T Tar

      Tom, move to Iraq.

      July 19, 2010 at 6:48 pm |
    • the Marquis

      Once again, T Tar, you have stunned us all with your poetic brilliance. Move to Iraq? Why? Oh, I see, because Tom has a different opinion than you? Hmm, interesting. It's unfortunate that you are so unpatriotic, T Tar. The very idea of America was to construct a society in which people are allowed to hold their own opinions and beliefs without having to fear persecution. Your comment to Tom to move to Iraq just because he disagrees with you seems very un-American, very unpatriotic, and reeks of the same sort of control and oppression that people fear are inherent in "Socialism." You're not a Socialist are you, T Tar? From your other comments, I would have never pegged you as a Socialist. That's ok, though, you are welcome to remain in America in spite of your radical beliefs, T Tar. Get it?

      July 19, 2010 at 8:54 pm |
  14. samantha

    What a crock, disrespect for the 9/11 people. These so called sympathizers should revoke their US citzenship and go live in the middle east.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:44 pm |
  15. D.D. North Carolina

    CNN ratings will continue to tank because of articles like this. What a bunch of warm and fuzzy PC junk! Makes me want to gag.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:44 pm |
  16. RonNY

    I am a true born New Yorker and I condemed the mosque to be built near ground zero. I am not against any religion who worships and practice love & peace by the word of God. But the radical group leaders has taken upon itself to persecue us Americans in anyway because we don't worship muslin laws. AND I WILL NEVER SUBJECT TO ANY OF THIER TEACHINGS. NO TO ANY MUSLIN MOSQUE TO BE BUILT IN ANY AMERICAN SOIL. STAND UP FOR WHAT'S RIGHT YOU NEW YORKERS.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
    • Fashion Faux Pas

      I, for one, am glad you won't be submitting to "Muslin" teachings. I mean, really... Muslin is so passe. Perhaps Polyester or a good light Cotton sundress for this summer heat would be more to your taste.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:26 pm |
  17. ja-mez

    What Terry stated is all true. Movie everyone should watch: Islam: what the west needs to know.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
  18. Elvis Presley

    Any fool who thinks this is good for America is a pathetic idiot!....and needs a hard slap!!!!!!!!!

    July 19, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
    • jayshemwell

      Wow Elvis. You sound like a really deep thinker!

      July 19, 2010 at 9:49 pm |
  19. CEL1

    Let's put up a mosqtempchurch and satisfy Muslims, Jews and Christians al with one building. A religious building at this site is over the top, even for us dumb-axx Americans.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:42 pm |
  20. Mary

    This is just a dumb idea... and with Obama in the white house they can all scream racism and shove it down our throats...just like the health bill.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:41 pm |
    • T Tar

      Obama is a racist

      July 19, 2010 at 6:45 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.