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. abq_tim

    Religious tolerance!!! Ha ha. I guess I'll make up a religion where it's okay to do whatever I please, including spitting on the graves of those I hate. I’ve got Inca blood in me so according to this guy it’s okay if I cut the heart out of humans because it’s part of my religion! This guy is like the principal who expels a kid because he brought a pair of nail clippers in his book bag and the nail clippers had a small 1 inch blade! This guy is taking freedom of religion to stupid heights.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
  2. DrewL

    What people fail to realize is that the terrorists who attacked on 9/11/01 didn't represent Islam any more than Irish Republican Army terrorists represented Catholicism. In fact, the 9/11 attackers represented barely the fringe of the fringe among Muslims, at best. But we in our typical, small-minded American way seem incapable of distinguishing between the actions of a few and the beliefs of the many. Why do we do that? Because it's easy. It's far too much trouble for us to wade through the murky gray areas that represent everyday life, so we take shortcuts to get us to a conclusion. Sadly, these shortcut conclusions are usually wrong and often extremely hurtful to others. But our desire for quick and easy solutions to life's more complex problems means that we often check our humanity, our compassion and our common sense at the proverbial door because we're too lazy to think things through.

    Over the last ten years, do you realize which religion has had more of its followers killed by the actions of "Islamic terrorists" than any other? Islam. Hands down. Not even close. Again, the terrorists don't care about religion, per se. They care about power, and it really doesn't matter which religion may stand in their way.

    It's time that we all come together and repudiate the actions of a few so that we may live more peacefully together. Build a mosque. Build a church. Build a synagogue. Build a temple. But let's stop building walls between us. That doesn't do anyone a lick of good.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
    • Jane

      Bravo, DrewL, bravo!

      July 21, 2010 at 11:16 am |
  3. secali

    We receive death threats for drawings cartoons of their prophet. The place is named after a mosque with great historical influence when it came to overtaking the "infidels." The Muslim Students' Association continues to breed radicals. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
  4. Tony Vallone

    So Mr. Prothero says that he sympathizes 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, but is convinced that this and other efforts are wrong. He also, conveniently fails to mention why they are wrong. Let me address this controversial subject with a hypothetical story in as simple terms as possible. Suppose in 1945, someone wanted to build a Japanese Cultural Center in Pearl Harbor. Would you think that was a good idea, after all, there were thousands of Japanese-Americans in this country interred in those camps you mentioned, and there were many Japanese-American GIs who fought and died throughout the Pacific. These people surely would have been as deserving of a cultural center as any other American, weren't they? Or maybe, just maybe, if you could distance yourself from the politically correct philosophy of honoring the perpetrator instead of the victim you might just realize that erecting anything near the ground zero site that bears even the slightest connection to the organization that those terrorists killed in the name of might be considered insensitive.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
  5. Haider Rizvi

    I am a muslim and hate the (so called islamic) terrorists as much as anybody else. They only use the name of Islam but neither know the true spirit of islam nor do they care about Islam. The very word Islam means "Religion of Peace" and that means peace for everyone without boundaries of religion or culture. In fact all the religions that I know of (Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Budhism, Islam) only tell to help each other, be good and not hurt or harm innocent. Its the people who use the name of religion (any religion) for their own motives that are true enemies of the man kind.

    However I understand that people may get hurt with this mosque being built at a place close to the WTC. In the name of peace and religious tolerance, I request the people who have planned this mosque, to change the site (in true islamic spirit).
    We do not want the terrorists to win. We do not want the people of this great country (which is a sign of freedom and religious tolerance to the whole world) feel sad or get hurt.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:17 pm |
  6. Valerie

    I agree with the author of this article completely. America is supposed to be a country of tolerance and freedom. Also, Islam IS a peaceful religion. Read a book, people! Go to the bookstore and get Islam for Dummies then try to act intelligent. As for those who say "Muslim leaders are not speaking out against terrorism. Blah blah blah" Actually, THEY ARE! Check out the Muslims for Peace campaign or acommonword.com. There are Muslims who want peace and want to move forward and are making the step towards that.
    Please, people, I implore you to actually pick up a book and read.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:15 pm |
  7. Sharjeel

    Terrorists are severer enemies for Islam than they are for the West. They hijack Islam, hijack our values, hijack mosque and other traditions, yet they have nothing to do with Islam and mosque and Quran. I totally agree with Stephen's opinion. I wish all Americans think that way.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:12 pm |
  8. The Transparent Man

    @ Steve: Pics of said mosaics or it didn't happen.

    All these happenstances, what with your crusades and jihads and intelligent design and bombings of religious sites simply because we cannot agree to disagree....

    On another note, why a mosque? I'm sure the folks of the ShrineTempleMosquePagodaChurch of the Flying Spaghetti Monster could use the space more than anyone else. So much anger here... bathe in the Sauce and be untethered from hate and fear.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:11 pm |
  9. A US Immigrant

    I admire America for her tolerance and acceptance of all. This is a reason why I immigrated to this country and became American. Now, this idea of building a mosque while the dust has not yet settle on the bodies of American is politically charged. The next time terrorists take away our Nation's Capital Building I worry about a mosque replacing it for the sake of religious freedom in America. There is a fine line between country and religion and this one has gone too far.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:10 pm |
  10. morton

    The risk factor in allowing this mosque to be built is palpable. Should it be destroyed (unfortunately) by arsonists, or whoever, it could provoke violence around the world. Americans have destroyed a mosque n New York, some would proclaim. There would be further loss of life in reprisals. Think about it. Is this all necessary? Already the stress has begun over it. Prudence forbids that this mosque be built. The wounds are still raw. Talk of a bad idea! at a bad time!

    July 20, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
  11. JD2

    Religious freedom?
    I think that is just for Muslims now.. Seems like a lot of the Christian religious items are being removed, (such as bibles and nativity sceens) from goverment property so that they do not upset anyone. But I guess we should be tolerent and alow a mosaic(a symbol to some for the responsiblilty of 911) to be on what many consider sacred ground.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
  12. Matt

    My credentials: Lived in NYC my entire life, Love america, Great Grandparents are Itallian Immigrants, Eyewitness to 9/11.
    Freedom of religion is the main reason for the creation of our beautiful country. By telling these AMERICANS that they can't peacefully practice their right to religion is completly unamerican. If we don't allow this we would actually be doing what the terrorist want us to do, which is to abandon our beliefs and persecute muslims in our country. Recently Al Qeada's 2nd in command came out with a video in this video he states that he believes that the muslims that are on our side and that cooperate with us are far more dangerous than the jews.

    I as an Italian-American New Yorker am for this mosque.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
  13. Hussein

    All of those who believe that the underlying purpose for the construction of the Mosque/Islamic Center at Ground Zero, are utterly wrong and misinformed. I ask you all, do you truly believe that the tragedy of 9/11 was caused by Islam? Or was it caused by the radical minds of a few select people, determined to undermine the values of American Society?

    Islam, takes its root from the Arabic word salaam meaning peace, and the Islamic holy book, The Quran, constantly preaches of maintaining peace. Therefore, it would be completely erroneus to believe that Islam could have been the driving force behind the atrocious crimes.

    Clearly, the attacks of September 11th, could only have been fueled by the absurd beliefs of a handful of people. These peoples actions have consequently led to a misrepresentation of all Muslims in America. Today, this misrepresentation has caused normally rational people to behave irrationally and to believe that all Muslims are inherently immoral.

    It is perplexing to imagine how the Ground Zero Mosque could be considered a symbol of an Islamic victory on 9/11, when in truth the day was an Islamic defeat.The core principle of, peace, upon which Islam was founded was violated and from the event Islam lost more than it has gained since.

    The Mosque should be built as symbol that America understand the meaning Islam, that we understand Islam for the vast majority of its followers and not only those who defame the religion.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
    • J

      Thank you for a well-written, insightful post!

      July 21, 2010 at 11:09 am |
  14. Carlos


    Your words are wonderful and your intent laudable, but I must strongly disagree with much of it. Granted, much of America is NOT ar war (on the surface) with Islam, but unfortunately it IS at war with terror and terrorists. The particular terrorists in question are indeed Muslims.

    You can debate the "radical" vs. "progressive" and the "Shia" vs. "Sunnni" and everything else. The truth of the matter is that blood was spilled on New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania soil – three places I've called "home" in my life. I watched, not on TV like my children but from an office window as the Towers collapsed. I worked with relief and recovery efforts. I had to go back home to California where I was living at the time to explain to my fellow Long Islander wife and my children what happened and later, who was responsible.

    Now, we can debate whether the men who did this were "evil," but we CANNOT debate the fact that they were all doing this IN THE NAME OF ISLAM. No one has EVER denied this nor could they. THIS IS THE SOLE REASON I HAVE TO SAY "NO MOSQUE" AT GROUND ZERO!!! I have Muslim and Jewish and Catholic and Protestant and Buddhist and Shinto and Wiccan and other religious and non religious faminly and friends, and my mother's father was indeed Muslim. I am a "Catholic in training" and have been to many interfaith and nondenominational gatherings. In short, I have NOTHING against Muslims. However, in the same way I would NEVER request that Saudi Arabia allow a monument to the innocent Christians who died in attacks on their soil, or ask Iran to allow me to build a Temple there or go to Hiroshima to put up a booth of US Army memorabilia, I would not want to see a mosque at Ground Zero – and MY opinion is much less vicious than many others who lost friends and family on September 11, 2001.

    Forgiveness isn't difficult for me, but I will NEVER FORGET.

    Thank you.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
  15. Bob

    Obviously, this topic is hitting a lot of hot buttons for many people. I have only this to offer. Remember the day it happened! The day so many died because of the twisted, fanatical praise of a fictitious god, Allah. How many people have died in the name of other fictitious "gods" in how many other "religions"? Too many. All are guilty. To allow this structure to be built is to insult the memory of those who died that day. It is also another step forward for the religion of Islam in further infiltrating American culture. If you want to be fair to everyone, build a Catholic church on one side of the mosque, and a synagogue on the other side. Then we will find out just how "peaceful" is the religion of Islam. I would be curious to see the results.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
  16. Bob

    Do any of you know that MANY mosques harbor terrorists because the US being so political CANNOT even go in and check them out. IN fact they are forbidden to enter. Do you know if the women are given all the rights as women in other churchs? Remember JOHN JONES? He had a religion also. The Muslims proudly say they are the only religion and will, in the future be the only one. Just look at the mosques in the middle east, their religion is NOT FREE for everyone. Try going to a Mosque!

    July 20, 2010 at 1:03 pm |
  17. Pab

    When is the last time that anyone from the Muslim community has ever spoken out against the attrocities that the Islamic radicals have performed Globally? Strangely silent they remain. Print a cartoon drawing of Allah and all hell breaks loose. Building a Mosque at ground zero is disrespectful to those that perished on 9/11 and to the families who live their lives without their father, mother,sister, brother and so on.
    God Bless America

    July 20, 2010 at 1:02 pm |
  18. Kiron

    These people (Radicalised Muslims & their ignorant followers) are extremly apt at raking up controvorsies and troubles around the world. A suggestion to build a mosque near groung Zero, or a similar structure near 2012 Olympic Stadium in England are just few of such examples.

    These fundamalist elements are taking advantage of the civilized people who restrain from calling a spade a spade, lest their comments are miscontrued as racist by the many educated Muslims who are still not into the folds of these fundamantelists.

    I so much wish and pray that this part of the world continues to be civilized, multicultural and tolerant. May God give good sense to these mischief makers.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
  19. Safety

    There's an enormous growth in building mosques all over the United States. Recently a movie theater in our nationhood converted to mosque and a few blocks from our house, right next to the Christian school my children attend, they built a new mosque.
    Invasion of United States by Islam is in a full swing. They want to do the same thing in here that they did in Europe (France % 20 Muslim populations). Have you ever asked who supports and where they get their financial needs to build and promote their religion in this country?
    Probably Iran and Saudis and other fundamental oil rich countries are in full sewing to invade this country by Muslim immigrants and their fundamental beliefs.
    First thing USA and concern Americans need to do is to stop granting citizenship by birth, diversity visa, relative citizenship, etc…..
    Muhammad Gaddafi, Libyan president who killed 270 Pan Am passengers said that “we can't conquer west militarily but we can do it by Muslim immigrant".

    July 20, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
  20. mensaman

    I don't see Bloomberg talking about how much it will cost to secure that place with police. It will foment violence. Some wingnut will bomb the place when it's full. No one wins with this but the terrorists.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:00 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.