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. kirk

    if you where so adamant about a mosque there you would have called for it on
    sept 11 2001

    just a disgusting idea and abbhorent in any form to do so is to invite trouble

    July 20, 2010 at 11:09 pm |
  2. kirk

    whats next a japanese shrine at pearl harbour
    or mabye a nazi cross in israel
    oh i know a kkk cross in a black community
    somethings can be done but should not be done

    July 20, 2010 at 10:57 pm |
    • B.S.

      Why dont we all just build an anti Muslim billboard across the street. If people think they have the right to build this so called peace loving temple, then we have the right to protest it LOUDLY.

      August 3, 2010 at 11:24 am |
  3. kirk

    no way new yorkers would tear it down anywhere but there

    July 20, 2010 at 10:55 pm |
  4. Bruce Messenger

    One thing comes to mind is that anyone who travels to New York City as a first-time tourist will go to visit Ground Zero regardless of who they are, or where in the world from which they came. The Mosque is a nice way to give radical tourists a nice place to stop off – rest, relax, grab a cool drink, maybe pick up a walking map – before going to visit the site of the greatest Muslim achievement of the 21st Century: Ground Zero.

    If you haven't done so read what SGT Eric says about the Cordoba House, then look up its meaning for yourself so you can make sure the story is valid. It is a shocker. Good old American patriotism: baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie – are on their way out. Whether we want to accept the fact or not, these Mosques will continue to be built in America, all over the place, at an exponential growth rate over the next 50 years. This is a fact, not something I'm threatening.

    July 20, 2010 at 10:47 pm |
  5. Jason

    We have become sensitive to Islam by abiding by their rules on what depictions of Mohammed can be be displayed and by not associating Iraqi/Afghani insurgents with Islam.

    Why can't Islam become sensitive to those affected by 9/11 and just move the mosque?

    July 20, 2010 at 7:54 pm |
  6. Jake

    I'm white and have a muslim dentist and she hasn't slit my throat yet, although she certainly has been quite close to it on numerous occasions. Especially when I react to the freezing. Just sayin'. lol.

    July 20, 2010 at 7:53 pm |
  7. ABC

    I wonder who will be paying for this mosque to be built......i wouldn't be surprised if our tax money is being used to built this...and claim that state is bankrupt....no wonder......pleae go find some other place to built this mosque not in NYC......

    July 20, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
  8. Richter

    Yes there certainly is religious freedom in the United States, but freedom is a two way street.
    It's citizens are also free to voice their opinions about any religion, and to criticize it if they want.
    To take away that right, is to disallow freedom of speech.

    If people want to complain about a mosque being built, they have every American right to do so.

    July 20, 2010 at 4:16 pm |
  9. Jeff

    Anybody, American or Muslim, who thinks it's ok to build a mosque at Ground Zero is sick in the head. The Muslims wanting to build up the mosque there should understand the sensitivity of Americans and move it somewhere else.

    July 20, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
    • NeoPat

      You do realize that there are American Muslims, right? That being said, the insensitive nature of this move astounds me. Now it's up to us whether we will allow it. Our grandfathers would never have let this happen. They are trying to take advantage of our laws to spit in our faces. They know that our laws protect everyone's rights, so they sign the papers with one hand while flipping us off with the other. I, for one, have had enough of the rhetoric from bleeding-hearts that we should be nice to everybody while they're spitting in our faces! Our forefathers would have punched them in the face, then us for letting it happen!

      August 3, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
  10. Eric G

    I will not claim that Islam is not a religion of peace. Nor will I say that Christianity or any other religion is not a religion of peace. Religious histories speak for themselves. I will say that they all share one common trait. None has ever produced any verifiable evidence that they are not false. They all debate what the "real" god said, did, will do, wants, expects and demands without providing any evidence that he exists. I await this proof from any religion with breathless anticipation.

    July 20, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
  11. Hussein

    I am sorry that you have been so misinformed about Islam. The fights that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) fought were solely out of defense for his people. Constantly, the non-muslim tribes of Mecca would threaten the the safety of the Muslims and so fighting in the name of defense was necessary.

    July 20, 2010 at 3:13 pm |
  12. chadi

    911 Was Made By The Mossad, & That's Why No One Still Talking About It & No More Clues, By The Way Bin Laden Is A CIA Agent An American Terrorist Not A Muslim Terrorist.
    The Word Islam Came From Salam & Salam Is Peace In Arabic.
    (I Am Half Muslim & Half Christian From Syria Where Church & Mosque Are Build Next To Each Other) Syria The Land Of Jesus.

    July 20, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
  13. Haider Rizvi

    I agree with Cheryl, we muslims need a greater effort in clearing the name of Islam. Muslim scholars all over the world are denouncing these terrorist and clearly stated that suicide bombing is unislamic.

    As for Quran, it is freely available in several languages including English (many free translations are also available on the net). I would suggest all our christian, Jew, Hindu, Sikh, Budhist, etc friends to read it in whatever language they prefer and read it first hand.

    In fact at 2 places in Quran, God Almighty says; 2:62 Indeed, those who believed and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans, who believed in Allah (God Almighty) and the Last Day and did righteousness – will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve., 5:69 Indeed, those who have believed [in Prophet Muhammad] and those who were Jews or Sabeans or Christians – those [among them] who believed in Allah (Lord Almighty) and the Last Day and did righteousness – no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve.

    July 20, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
    • John E.Hopkinson

      ......in clearing the name of Islam. Muslim scholars all over the world are denouncing these terrorist and clearly stated that suicide bombing is unislamic."
      Scholars denouncing and Muslims proclaiming is not good enough, Only when Muslims become proactive in the elimination of their own radical elements will the murder and mayhem be quelled. Canada and the US and Britain and France and Germany and The Netherlands and wherever else Muslims have decided to populate are all too familiar with the refrain "this is not Islam, you don't understand Islam".
      Here is something to ponder: During WW2 Canada and the Commonwealth trained Polish, Dutch, French Czech etc. expatriates in flying and other military endeavors. These people returned to Britain to assist in defeating the Nazi occupiers of their lands. One would expect that if Iraquis, Afghanis, and other Muslims were serious about the defeat of Islamic extremism in their homelands they would be at least working in close cooperation with the NATO and other Forces to eradicate this problem.
      On the contrary, we observe Muslims (in Canada nad the US) complaining about either a lack of effort in helping defeat Taliban, or worse, complaining about the loss of Mulims to the NATO attacks.
      Clearing the name of Islam will only be done by Muslims dedicated to the successful eradication of so-called "bad Muslims". Denouncing, and scholarly pronouncements are a smokescreen..
      Meanti8me, Muslims are killing Canadian and other Nato troops, with the implied knowledge, consent and approval of Muslims everywhere. Enough. Do your own work in your own territories.

      July 20, 2010 at 8:50 pm |
  14. secali

    If this post is true, it says it all:

    i am persian and i live under mullahs rule. whoever thinks it is a good idea to have a mosque there, needs to go and live in a muslim country and get to know and understand what islam is and what kind of people will use and abuse the religion in their own benefit. it is nice to be in the states and think everyone should enjoy the freedom that this country can offer someone. but there should be understanding that this freedom needs to be in hands of responsible people, and not people that can at any point of time jeopardize the basic principals of freedom that we take here as granted. unfortunately, the principals of islam is what you see on tv, and not as they are portraying as peace loving religion. it is a harsh religion that choses force to control people the way they want to, and they would not stop of killing anyone to get to the point they want to be. and this is a fact that no one can close their eyes to, they should not close their eyes to, and should not let them build this mosque.

    July 20, 2010 at 2:36 pm |
    • Safety

      Well said secali
      I'm a Persian and know what this evil religion is capable to do under the name of Allah!!!!!
      Americans are in a deep sleep by the time they wake up would be toooooo late.

      July 21, 2010 at 9:20 am |
  15. secali

    So all these fine places with Sharia laws are simply misunderstood, like Islam itself? The goal is Islam is to takeover a society. Ask a Muslim to be honest with you. They may not support this position, but that cannot deny it is true. "Render unto Caesar...." is not part of the tradition. Why would the Muslims want this cultural center so close to Ground Zero? It's offensive. It's provocative. It's another shot in the war between cultures. The man who will run this center is no friend of the West. Take a closer look. I fear for Muslims after the next big terrorist attack, which is being planned as we debate here, no doubt. Until their mosques, student groups and such stop becoming a breeding ground for radicals, the Muslims must understand our fears are justified. As a parent, my greatest fear is that we continue to see this as a minor threat. We wouldn't have soldiers giving their lives if this were the case.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:42 pm |
  16. David Grosekemper

    Preposterous! The idea this mosque will serve as a "community center", to bring together peoples of all faiths & diversity, is ridiculous. Islam doesn't have a history of being inclusive of other faiths, quite the opposite in fact. The truth is, until Islam revises it's tenants of faith, forming a consensus, to include all Muslims of various sects, all non-Muslim faiths and all cultures, this political ideology stands as a testament, to intolerance, subjugation, contradicting dualistic ethics, war mongering & total submission. Islam does not assimilate into a society, it dominates it. There is never any “getting along” with Islam, except through acquiescence. Its demands never cease & the demands must be met on Islam’s terms: requiring total submission.Political Islam has annihilated every culture it has invaded or immigrated to. The total time for annihilation may take centuries, but once Islam is ascendant it never fails. The host culture disappears and becomes extinct. This mosque serves only 1 purpose, to memorialize 9/11 in honor of the martyr's or soldiers Jihad, for the cause of Allah. NO MOSQUE AT GROUND ZERO!!!

    July 20, 2010 at 1:40 pm |
    • Sharms

      Ever hear about the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland, or the Inquisition in the Catholic Church. So before you reference intolerance, subjugation, contradicting dualistic ethics, war mongering & total submission in Islam, look at the history of Christianity too.

      July 20, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
  17. Kevin

    If this forum was discussing the question of "Do muslims have the right to build this mosque?" What American could say "no"? Comments seem more directed at "should they build it". Buhddist say "Let them discover Buddha", Jews "Let them come", yes Christian try to actively convert with missionaries. but in Islamic countries we see the Muslim attitude "NO God but Allah"
    All religions believe they are right but Islam is the only one where you are not allowed to say “No Thank You” when they come to power. They are so right that they cannot ask themselves “Should we build it here?” We will burn embassies over a cartoon because our feelings are hurt, we will build a mosque because “Allahu Akbar”. “Americans feelings are wrong” “Some day they will understand”

    July 20, 2010 at 1:38 pm |
  18. Les

    The first amendment seems to be pretty clear that the community center/mosque should be allowed:

    "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"

    July 20, 2010 at 1:37 pm |
  19. Andrew Messenger

    My take on it would be: if they will allow the Catholic church to build a cathedral in Mecca, then we should allow them to build a Mosque at Ground Zero. If it is not acceptable to build a Catholic cathedral in Mecca, then is should not be acceptable to build a Mosque at Ground Zero. Very simple.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
    • Mar

      Not quite, Saudi is a Islamic kingdom.
      the United States is a secular democracy.

      July 21, 2010 at 9:55 pm |
  20. Bob

    How many Muslim countries give everyone equal rights? How do they punish those who disobey what the Muslims THINK is the Korans teaching? How many terrorists are Muslims, Baptists, Catholics, etc.? How many Muslims preach the destruction of other races? What other religions do this? To accept anything without question is a fools mistake! Then again we are a nation of fools!

    July 20, 2010 at 1:22 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.