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. charlie

    Im sick of everyone (including the nerd who posted his ridiculous "commentary") talking about how as Americans we must be tolerant of other religions. Well this particular religion had its chance but it blew it SORRY but we cant TOLERATE a religion whose members fly planes into our buildings and kill our people...so take this mosque and build it someplace else...or preferrably not at all.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
  2. realitycheck

    Stop listening to hatefilled good old boys like Glen Beck and grow a brain and think for yourself.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
  3. Carl

    Are Christian, Bahai, Budist or other temples or churches allowed in certain Islamic countries? Is a christian person allowed to walk on streets with a bible or a crucifix in an islamic country? Are christian women or of other religion besides Islam, not forced to wear a veil when visiting certain Islamic countries? Why should we permit islamic people to do whatever they want in our countries?

    Those good-hearted people who believe in freedom in our countries are not realists with respect to Islamic people. Do every one forgot what happened in France not long ago? Some good islamic people migrate to our countries, but who will garantee that their sons or grandsons won"t become islamist believing in violence and oppression in our own countres.

    There have been cases in India in which islamic people were welcomed in a village. After a number of years, when they have become the majority of the population in that village they began harrasing and oppressing the villagers of other religions.

    Please don't be deceived by our beliefs of freedom because Islamic people don't believe in it. The islamists are always talking about the crusades, but what they don't mention is that the crusades was a religious violent reaction to their Islamic violent conquests in the middle east and in Europe. So who started it? They say that Spain was an Islamic country and dismiss 200 years of Christian history before year 711 of current era when they invade the Iberian peninsula.

    If the Islamic people are so content with that kind of life, then why they don't stay in their country and keep enjoying their historic an traditional absence of freedom. There they could build all the mosques they want. My belief is that their plan is to creep into democratic countries to gain power and bring more and more of the Islamic way of life. An then that would be the beginning of our nations disaster.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
    • t

      Carl in most Muslim countries, you can build churges and Christians can walk down the street. I know because I have been there and seen first hand. Even in Suadia Arabia there are churches.

      Also we in the U.S. have different standards & values, we should'nt be comparing ourselves to middle eastern countries that are run by dictatorships.

      July 20, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
  4. Jay

    Please get back on the medications and do something useful for society. Volunteer or something other than subscribing to idiotic and ignorant accusations that have never even been close to proven. And if you must still subscribe to dumb things like this, spare us the waste of time of having to hear about it.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
  5. Anthony

    Touchy subject without a shadow of a doubt. Looking at this objectively, you must see both sides, however, one side is a bit more practical than the other. I am not entirely a religious person. I am an American. I served in the military. I was raised Christian. Unless some obvious connect can be found, or dug-up even, that would connect the ambition and direction and purpose of this mosque to some level of anti-American sentiment or Muslim extremist ideal, then who are "we" to decide where this place of worship should be constructed. Surely, there are plenty of American Muslims who will frequent this establishment. Surely, there is a separation of church and state, surely Christianity is not the only benchmark in this country. Would "we" as American non-Muslims be able to stop an American Muslim from walking anywhere in the vicinity, working anywhere in the vicinity, playing anywhere in the vicinity of ground zero? No. So, what makes this any different?

    July 20, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
  6. Richter

    Saying sucide bombings and beheadings are not part of Islamic religion is false.
    The fact of the matter is religion is an ideology that is free to mutate into other memetic strians.
    It exists in human minds. It is not immutable.
    Islam has fractured and mutated into a volient strain.
    When religion muitates, other sects and groups are born from the parent stockj. Many will have different interpretations.
    Saying they are not a a part of Islam is tantamount to saying exorcism is not a part of Christianity.
    It is, but it's contained within separate stains.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
  7. RM

    America has Freedom of Religion, not Freedom to do whatever you want because it's Religion.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
  8. Steve Newman

    First, it is NOT at Ground Zero. It is two blocks away. This is much to do about nothing.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
  9. dave

    Is this guy insane or what? The Koran does teach that Muslims should advance their religion by force, to kill the infidel, to hate Jews and Christians, and to hate any political system that believes in a persons right to choose (freedom). You would have to be a f@#%^ing idiot not to have that figured out by now!!!

    July 20, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
  10. mensaman

    This man is preaching acceptance of terrorism and radical Islam rather than religious tolereance.
    I'm sick of these "unicorn riders" making this country a bunch of weak gutless sheep – primed to be taken over.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
  11. Jay

    Honestly putting a mosque near ground zero is an unfortunate idea and my main question to those proposing the idea is why? There is plenty of less expensive land all around the area but putting a mosque there is obviously trying to send a message and I don't think we need that. Constructing anything in Lower Manhattan takes resources, money and effort of epic proportions and I find it odd that they would go this much out of their way to construct a mosque in an area that costs this much and is obviously going to be controversial. America is the land of freedom for all and while we see it okay to build mosques, I think it would be nice if you could have some compassion and respect for what happened there. I know, I know Islam is the religion of peace, but if it really is please help us promote peace by building elsewhere and respect the fact that many many people find a religion that was used to kill thousands of people right down the street and that promotes women as second class citizens quite troubling. If it really is such a peaceful, great and grand religion why can't you respect the fact that this is America and we as a whole don't live that way, and New York City being a bastion of freedom, diversity and equal rights is not your playground. There are mosques all over New York City, but please stop testing just how far people will go to accommodate what most see as an obstacle to the free and equal society that helps define New York City today. We all agree that you should practice your religion, but please don't take advantage of our kindness to ram down our throats your views and ideas that clearly differ from the common American. I really challenge your true motive to build this here.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
  12. LL

    How come everyone has the RIGHT to do something until it is the majority of people trying to exercise that right. Then it becomes "intolerance", "insensitivity", etc. Seems a bit backward to me.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
  13. realitycheck

    If you refuse to let the mosque be built NEAR not ON the world trade center, then you are violating people's freedom of religious expression. You cannot have it both ways. This country was founded on freedoms for some, but not all. It is okay for Europeans to demand independence and freedoms from England, but enslave others and dictate to others. The mosque will be built. If we are going to start holding whole religions responsible for historical events then there are alot of churches that need to be torn down. Whoever the hell said that people haven't torchered or murdered in the name of Christianity for centuries is a real moron. The issue is that when a Christian does somethign wrong we chalk it up to the individual's insanity or personal failings, but when it is any other religion, particularly Islam, it is the whole damn religion. Ethnocentirism at its best.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
  14. Terrorism

    The goal of terrorism is to change the ways and ideals of the victims. It is reasonable for anyone who experienced loss (which all of us did) to take a defensive stance, but this is an emotional response. Not one based on logic or principle. Our constitution was written to withstand the test of time, to allow for freedom of speech and freedom of religion. If we pick and choose to whom and when those freedoms are granted, we have allowed the terrorists to "win". To even consider interfering with the building of this mosque is a violation of the rights and freedom that I hold very dear.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
  15. C Mann

    When Muslims defeat an enemy and take over their land, the first thing they do is build a new mosque on the most important site in that country. By building this mosque the people behind it saying to other muslims that 9/11 was a great victory over America. Where once stood the symbol of American greatness we now have mosque.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
  16. RM

    It's long overdue to differentiate between freedom of religious thought, and freedom of religous practice. Satan worshipers are not allowed to publicly bleed out dogs and birds in the street. In America we support freedom of religion, but that doesn't grant unbridled freedoms for religious practice. For example, Islam states that anyone leaving Islam is either given a chance to return to Islam, or be killed. But in America this religious practice is called Murder and is not allowed. Likewise, there are limits to where buildings are built, permits are issued, etc. You wouldn't be allowed to bulldoze the White House in order to put up a Mosque. So, I think we're far and beyond the point where everyone needs to realize that Freedom of Religion means free to believe what you want without being killed, but not the freedom to do whatever you please in the name of your religion. Let's not confuse the two.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
  17. ABC

    It's so funny, that we are even thinking and supporting the idea of building the mosque at the place, where ppl from this religion came and blew away the twin towers and killed about 5000 ppl....and we are rewarding them for doing this sinful act. Why cant we for once stand together and say NO.....we don't have to prove these muslims that we "the americans" have heart of gold and forgive eveyone......Instead of building a mosque there,,,we can use this place for other purposes, make a memorial to WTC, or build something were americans can go and enjoy themselves. These politicians are just supporting this idea to gain more votes for their election,,,for their own selfish reasons.......This mosque should not be built......As an American i can't see us rewarding these muslims for what they did on 9/11/01......the wound is still fresh in all americans and can never be forgotten......We are already being gracious by letting these muslims stay in this country.....cuz they know they are not even welcomed in their home country......so they should be greatful to us and just keep shut......

    July 20, 2010 at 12:50 pm |

    This is an excellent article. Unfortunately most people are too dense to get the point.

    The point the article is making is that by denying this center America inadvertently admits that it considers every Muslim including its own citizens as enemies based on the action of some. While it’s true that a lot of people do think like that already (especially from reading these posts), what the author is trying to relay to all is that such a position goes against the very core values that this Country was built on and that terrorist organizations and various government regimes are the enemy not Islam as a whole and certainly not every Muslim individual. Moreover, by inadvertently admitting that we consider every Muslim a terrorist aren’t we in fact just making it that much easier for these terrorist groups to recruit individuals including our own citizens. Doesn’t it make more sense to let our own citizens who happen to be Muslim and even those Muslims in other countries know that we don’t consider every one of them an enemy and that we do respect them as people and as individuals. The only people that will think of this mosque as US being conquered are already against us so what does it matter what they think?

    July 20, 2010 at 12:50 pm |
  19. ohhiya

    A massive, impressivly large Mosque at ground zero? Next thing is Rome is going to want a cathedral in baghdad.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
  20. tjburke67

    There is a difference between being a scholar studying religion and being a theologian. Prothero studies religion and is bound to the methodologies of his discipline, which say if it cant be seen, touched, felt or, heard then it cannot be real. His intellectual pursuit is limited to data infused with a particular ideology that bends results to seek its own end. Nothing is more indicative of this then his call for tolerance – the so called great virtue of American Freedom. It is not tolerance that makes us free – it is actually our ability to recognize that which is not acceptable to what we come to know as right and to be intolerant of it. That is what Flannery O'Connor called being "tolerantly realistic". I am not sure that the religious literacy that Mr. Prothero talks about is a product of free intellectual inquiry. In my opinion Mr. Prothero would have a world of tolerance that would take the mystery out of life and bring us all eventually "...to the gas chamber". As an example of intolerance I am thinking of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. who was a theologian who received a Doctorate from Boston University (Prothero's employer). He was a leader because he did not simply tolerate injustice, he was fully intolerant of it and confrontational towardt it.

    July 20, 2010 at 12:48 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.