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. Rex

    oes anybody find this stupid and/or funny when all these people claim taht its a peaceful religion and to show that they are peaceful, all they do is teach tolerence to other people and demand to build mosque. In reality if they are so concerned about the image of their religion taking a hit beacuse of some extrimist activity then they should start making an example by being tolerent and promoting other religion peaceful activities rather demanding a mosque for themselves

    July 20, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  2. ybs

    What happened to equality & freedom of religion?

    All religions are one big pile of dung. Islam is one big pile itself but Christians have no rights subjugating non-believers or those who practice other faith.

    When a non-Christian faith becomes the faith of the majority in the U.S., Christians will sing a different tune on the separation of church and state. "In allah we trust" and "So help me allah" will sound as pleasant to Christians as "god" to non-believers today!

    The solution... no religion in state. Morality is based on the law. And law existed before many religions.

    You can do good without god/religion, unless you have a superiority complex.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  3. Jim in Florida

    Amazing how a huge Mosque can be built but the Port Authority is taking the land that St. Nicholas Church was destroyed on:

    Church Destroyed at Ground Zero Is Still at Square One
    Published: March 18, 2009
    The tiny St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church is once again at the forefront of the myriad disputes that plague the rebuilding effort at ground zero.

    The fate of the church, a narrow whitewashed building that was crushed in the attack on the World Trade Center, was supposed to have been settled eight months ago, with a tentative agreement in which the church would swap its land for a grander church building on a larger parcel nearby, with a $20 million subsidy from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. This would have allowed work to begin at the south end of the site.

    But the two sides never came to final terms. After months of negotiations, the Port Authority, which is overseeing reconstruction at ground zero, ended its talks with the church on Monday, saying that the church had sought increasingly costly concessions.

    Complaints, of course, abound on both sides.

    The authority now says that St. Nicholas is free to rebuild the church on its own parcel at 155 Cedar Street, just east of West Street. The authority will, in turn, use eminent domain to get control of the land beneath that parcel so it can move ahead with building foundation walls and a bomb-screening center for trucks, buses and cars entering the area.

    “We made an extraordinarily generous offer to resolve this issue and spent eight months trying to finalize that offer, and the church wanted even more on top of that,” said Stephen Sigmund, a spokesman for the Port Authority. “They have now given us no choice but to move on to ensure the site is not delayed. The church continues to have the right to rebuild at their original site, and we will pay fair market value for the underground space beneath that building.”

    Last July, the Port Authority and the Greek Orthodox Church announced a tentative plan to rebuild the church just east of its original site, at Liberty and Greenwich Streets. The authority agreed to provide the church with land for a 24,000-square-foot house of worship, far larger than the original, and $20 million. Since the church would be built in a park over the bomb-screening center, the authority also agreed to pay up to $40 million for a blast-proof platform and foundation.

    In recent negotiations, the authority cut the size of the church slightly and told church officials that its dome could not rise higher than the trade center memorial. The church, in turn, wanted the right to review plans for both the garage with the bomb-screening center and the park, something the authority was unwilling to provide. More important, authority officials said, the church wanted the $20 million up front, rather than in stages. Officials said they feared that the church, which has raised about $2 million for its new building, would come back to the authority for more.

    The termination of negotiations is a major setback for the little church, a parish of 70 families that is nearly 90 years old. St. Nicholas officials had hoped to build an impressive structure, with a traditional Greek Orthodox dome, and a nondenominational center for visitors to ground zero. That will not be possible on the church’s original 1,200-square-foot lot, although church officials say they hope for reconciliation.

    “We consider the rebuilding of the St. Nicholas Church a sacred obligation to the victims of 9/11, to the city of New York, to the people of America and in fact to the international community,” said Stavros H. Papagermanos, a spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. “We will continue to discuss in good faith and we believe that all parties involved are well-intended, and ultimately we will overcome any obstacles that have arisen.”

    One person who was involved in the negotiations on behalf of the church, and who insisted on anonymity so as not to inflame the situation, criticized the Port Authority, saying it had made constantly shifting demands on St. Nicholas. Still, he said, the remaining issues were relatively small.

    But it does not appear that the Port Authority is posturing. And while the Bloomberg administration expressed regrets about the impasse, officials said it was far more important to proceed apace with building a memorial, a transit center and other projects at ground zero.

    St. Nicholas, a four-story church, became a symbol of resilience after it was destroyed, with George E. Pataki, then the governor, and Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, vowing that it would rise again.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:46 pm |
  4. Dude

    Yes – this country was built on religious freedom. Still – a mosque at Ground Zero would be subject to non-stop picketing and vandalism. Bad idea.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:46 pm |
  5. Vicki

    No mosque should be built near the site of the WTC! It is a symbol to most Americans of hate. I have traveled overseas to Arabic countries and they do not allow churches of christian faiths to be built anywhere near their so called sacred sites or mosque's and would burn it if was built! It's the thought that counts here! Let the mosque be built elswhere!

    July 20, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
  6. Jake

    What a ridiculous article. The idea that Americans somehow owe it to ourselves or (more preposterously) to worldwide adherents of Islam to demonstrate how religiously-tolerant we are is beyond stupid. The fact that we have religious freedom here does not mean that we have to go out of our way to prove it to anybody, let alone to the murderous terrorists who got us into this mess. We demonstrate our religious freedom by practicing it every day, and we do not have to bend over backwards to accommodate a particular religion (ahem, the religion that just so happens to inspire the terrorists) in a place where it is clearly offensive and unwanted.
    We have to remember that muslims started this terrorism problem, and so the onus is on muslims worldwide to understand OUR sensitivities to what their co-religionists have wrought. The onus is not on us to prove that we "like" them.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
  7. Brian

    It would be refreshing to see that most Americans actually understand the difference between followers of Islam and Islamic radicals. Unfortunately, most of you do not. Islamic radicals are as perverted from the faith they claim to follow as are Christian extemeists who live on compounds and plot for anarchist rule.

    This goes far beyond right vs. left, conservative vs. liberal, Republican vs. Democrat – if you are not intelligent enough to see the difference, if you are not wise enough to understand that Muslims are as much of a target from Islamic radicalism as "we" are, then you simply have no place in this discussion.

    The introduction of a mosque in this area doesn't do disservice to the victims of 9/11, nor does it tarnish their legacy. What it does is show the radicals that instead of being the brainless, intolerant idiots they think us to be, we are actually a strong, tolerant nation that understands the fundamental difference between moderate Islamic practices and the heavy handed, cowardly "faith" of the terrorists who attack us.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
  8. debbie

    oh Father! protect us from ourselves....amen.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
  9. full_absolution

    I live near the site of the OKC bombing. Did you know Timothy McVeigh was a Catholic for a great deal of his life? Does this mean we should ban all Catholic churches from building near the OKC Memorial?

    People, I beseech you, read the First Amendment sometime, when you're not busy blaming millions of people for the actions of the few.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
  10. My Opinion

    I love the idea of having a mosque near the site. I am a muslim and I love all americans as I am an American and I love America. I hate the terrorists and I hate the fact that they call themselves muslims. They are indeed only killers. They have no love for humanity. A true muslim is supposed to give and spread love..all other stuff that you hear is BS. All these people are working on some big agenda of their own. It has nothing to do with Islam.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
  11. LL

    Why does everyone keep talking about freedom this and that. Yes we get it that they have the RIGHT to do it. Doesn't anyone care that it just seems distasteful? Let say you were jewish and loved one died. Then you went to visit their gravestone and someone placed nazi symbols all around their grave, not on it, but around it. They had the right to do that I suppose. Look just because you have a right to do something, doesn't mean its the right thing to do. Tolerance and sensitivity should work both ways. I dont know why we don't demand it more towards ourselves.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
  12. NorCalMojo

    They have a right to build it, but it's obvious that it offends many people.

    If their intent is really to "bridge the cultural divide", this is not the way to do it. It will just fuel more anti-muslim sentiment. The pretense that the West is the intolerant party and Muslims are misunderstood is a joke.

    It's true that not all muslims promote murder for Allah, but there is still a huge faction of Islam that hate anything that is not Islam. Softer bigotry is even more widespread. The peaceful Muslims may not want to fly planes into buildings, but they won't allow their daughters to marry "outsiders".

    They should build outreach centers that promote tolerance toward Western values in Islamic centers like Karachi and Mecca. That would be much more constructive. In the long run, it would also be better for the image of Islam.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
  13. SRD

    To build a mosque even close to ground zero in NYC is ridiculous and offensive! It was the damn followers of ISLAM that toppled our towers and started this war! There are so many other places to build a mosque and to place it anywhere near such a site and let alone in NYC in my opinion is anti-American and pro-extremism! It should come as no surprise to anyone that these crazies who practice such a violent religion and this new mosque will no doubt bring other individuals to the area (if they are not already ready there) who are going to preach hate and terror according to ISLAM... the religion of violence!!! Building a mosque where Islam will be preached along with hate and terror in this area is a horrible idea that should be stopped and if it is built I believe that anything should be done to close it down forever! Have respect for the people that were murdered during 9/11 by MUSLIMS who practiced ISLAM and oppose this ridiculous proposal! If anything should be built there it should a damn memorial and it should not be related to the people that took the towers down!

    July 20, 2010 at 12:42 pm |
    • Brian

      Would you care to enlighten me as to how one "wins" a war against an idea or ideology?

      July 20, 2010 at 12:50 pm |
  14. Thomas

    Let us build a Church in Saudi Arabia to encourage understanding of Christianity!!!
    Religion is what is practiced

    July 20, 2010 at 12:42 pm |
  15. conscious

    It is impossible that Muslims could have planted the explosives that brought down the twin towers and WTC7 in what obviously was a controlled demolition.

    Therefore, I see no reason to object to Muslims building a mosque at ground zero, or anywhere for that matter.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
  16. Mrs. Robinson

    Seriously? Of all the places? Why there specifically? I don't begrudge them building a mosque, but have some good taste, people! This is just in VERY poor taste. If Christian's had declared, planned and pulled off an attack in one of the Middle Eastern countries killing 3,000 Muslims, I dare say they'd NEVER allow a church in their midst...OH WAIT – ARE THERE EVEN ANY LEFT OR ALLOWED NOW? and save your, "that's what makes us different – our ability to...blah blah blah" – what? OUR ABILITY TO FORGET? OUR ABILITY TO PANDER TO ANYONE no matter how egregious or offensive their proposal? Again, have some taste and good sense and respect the country that you profess to love so much by moving it where sensitivities do not run so high...

    July 20, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
  17. Liza

    this is ridiculous. they should just build a memorial!

    focus on a memorial people! not a mosque!! for what?

    July 20, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
  18. Melanie

    We will never build a synagogue in Mecca because there is no freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia. The United States is not like Saudi Arabia. We are guaranteed religious freedom through our First Amendment. We are different countries. Some of you would have us become the Christian version of the Muslim world.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:40 pm |
  19. Liza

    this is ridiculous. they should just built a memorial!

    focus on a memorial people! not a mosque!! for what?

    July 20, 2010 at 12:40 pm |
  20. Tom

    How is this a victory for terrorists? The terrorists that crashed into the WTC were criminals bent on hurting innocent people. The community center is for everyone – all races, creeds and religions – to come together and hang out. They would hate that. Their goal was to be a divider, not a uniter.

    There's nothing wrong with building a muslim community center there. If it's OK to build a church next to the Murrow building in Oklahoma city, then why not a Islamic center next to the WTC? Obviously, we can seperate fanatical Christians from the mainstream, and if we put aside our ignorance, we can do the same for Muslims.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:39 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.