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. Robert Robbins

    Among the most moronic pieces of rhetoric that I have ever heard from the lunatic fringes of the radical left. Of course we are at war with Islam. Duh. And only a fool will think that we have to provoke terrorism. The sane people in New york should impeach their mayor and, if necessary, physically block construction of this outrageous temple of Dagon.

    July 24, 2010 at 12:57 am |
  2. 2402tuner

    I am for everyone trying to find a wat to live together in this world i think the mosque in Ny would show tolerance and our founding laws of freedom of religion but my problem is way the Muslim group wants to call this the Cordoba House. Cordoba was one of the last great defates of the Chistians by the Muslims around 750 AD if my memory serves me right, out of college five years now. This is one of the most desive point in Islamic history and i know Wika is not relablie but i cant get on the database at my old college but here it is " "The rule of the Caliphate of Corboda is known as the heyday of Muslim presence in the Iberian peninsula untill the moors moved in. Why has CNN not reported about this and look between the lines Shame Shame you have teams of researches and if not hire me

    July 23, 2010 at 6:04 pm |
    • Jack Kegley

      Sorry, the moors were the Muslims so there could not have been a Caliphate of Muslims until the "moors" moved in. That is like saying there was a church on that block until the Christians moved in.

      August 3, 2010 at 12:16 pm |
  3. John MN

    Stephen, from reading these comments, you are one of the last remaining free thinkers on the planet, and I commend you. Let them build the mosque, and let's hope it brings them peace and happiness, just like our ancestors were looking for when they left their homes, looking for the land of opportunity and religious freedom that all peoples deserve. That's the America I hope will still be around for my kids to grow up in. Thank you Stephen for holding down the fort of sensibility.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
  4. jc

    clearly i would like to have some of what you are smoking..... what a waste of space you are.. it is people like you that gets us into things like this because you think liberal is ok... let the rest of the world kick us any time they want.

    July 23, 2010 at 2:35 pm |
  5. commonsense

    The militant wing of islam may be a small minority but large numbers of the followers of islam have extreme viewpoints that are 'unquestionable' and by not talking about it you condone what is happening in the name of that religion. You cannot keep saying that it is a religion of peace and the majority coexist peacefully when, in fact, extreme beliefs/ideology and extremist actions in the name of islam are prevalent, wherever you look. As long as Islam does not become more moderate and its followers quit taking every word literally, peaceful coexistence will forever be a pipe dream. There are serious problems in the islamic community especially with powerful clerics and others continuing to hijack legitimate causes and giving it a religious twist resulting in something vicious. These problems need to be addressed; instead, the standard response seems to be to always say that there are bad apples in all religions ... and so somehow that makes it ok. Being politically correct and pushing the dirt under the carpet bcos you don't want to offend anyone, will never solve any problems. And calling folks, who point this out, racists and bigots isn't going to achieve anything. So it isn't as simple as saying that religious freedom allows for a mosque to be built there. Islam is no longer just a religion; it is turning into a totalitarian ideology and this monument is not just being seen as a place of worship – it is being looked at as a symbol of that ideology.

    July 23, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
  6. Isabella

    I can only imagine the pain the families of the victims of 9/11 have suffered. I can understand how uncomfortable it may be for some of these family members to see a mosque built near ground zero. We are human after all. However, by stopping this, we are compromising what this country was founded on..religious tolerance.
    Separately, would one say a church should not be built near a school because of the many priests who have sexually abused children? Should we condemn every priest , every Catholic for the misdeeds of those priests? NO So then, should we condemn every Muslim for the misdeeds of those hijackers?

    July 22, 2010 at 9:28 pm |
  7. truth

    hear, hear! excellently written my brother. i couldn't agree more.

    July 22, 2010 at 4:16 pm |
  8. Craig

    There should be no religious buildings built near Ground Zero. No Christian churches, no Islamic Mosques, no Jewish Temples, no Hindu shrines, or any other Houses of Worship. America should remember that day as thousands of equal Americans losing their lives, not some Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, etc. people losing their lives. I feel that keeping religion personal and believing for personal faith is imperative. If our religions are telling us to convert all other faiths to our own, there will be conflict forever. No religion should be viewed as right or wrong, and religion should be kept out of a hallowed ground for Americans. Visitors should be able to come and pay their respects to those who died in whatever way they feel proper.

    July 22, 2010 at 4:02 pm |
  9. Joe

    I am personally astonished that any person who is intelligent enough to get on a computer and read this article could be so completely stupid that they do not see the contradiction in opposing the mosque. For starters, it is not being built at the site of the former World Trade Center, it is being built several blocks away. Secondly, it is a mosque and community center in a city with a significant Muslim population which has every right to be represented and supported. Third, Al-Quada is NOT representative of the entire Muslim community nor is the Taliban. Most Muslims are peaceful, law-abiding citizens who contribute to their communities the same as their Christian and Jewish neighbors.

    What we are seeing here is racism pure and simple. It's an American tradition that simply won't go away.

    July 22, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
  10. one who doesn'tcare

    ruth, sounds as though you have this all figured out right down to all the pages in your bible. good for you. Do you know how many people had a hand in writing and rewriting the book you so vehemently follow? Duh. I say put the Mosque right in the slap dab middle of ground zero. They have every right to do so, and are going to no matter what you people say. We need to get over ourselves and quit qhining all the time. There are more muslims in the world than any other faith. Get a gip on reality.

    July 22, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
  11. ruth

    Steven are you so without knowledge that you do not know that all of the religions on earth are of astrology worship with the exception of Judaism and Christianity...This includes Islam..Allah was the moon god named Hubal alias SIN....History, archeology and the Bible confirm this...
    Islam is at war with not just the USA but with the entire world including their own....
    You should also know that Jesus warned us that only Satan denies his death as do Muslims in Matthew 16-21,22,23... Not to mention that antichrist denies Jesus is son and god is father... You better examine your own salvation before you teach anyone anything...

    July 22, 2010 at 2:32 pm |
  12. liz

    Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Muslims have died as a result of Gulf War part Deux so there is plenty on both sides to be angry about. Denying this community center which is NOT A MOSQUE will not bring back any of those who have died nor will it honor those who died in and as a result of 9/11.

    July 22, 2010 at 7:40 am |
  13. Umar Murad

    Mosques and Churches and synagogues are a symbol of love of humans for their creator and his message.

    The message in its essence is love for other human beings. It should not even be an issue whether a mosque should be built at Ground Zero as that is not a requirement but just a symbolic act. If any one doesnt want it there I mean anyone then why built it. It not about what the law of the land says. its about what the heart of the people says.

    I think a massive effort is needed by all living Muslims, Christians and lets not forget Jews to rise above the wordings of their scriptures and understand the essence of the message and promote love by building building bridges amongst each other by very simple petty caring acts on a daily basis, where ever they can. It is that feeling when it buids up will force each other to live and let live.

    By the way being a Muslim and being self crtical in all humility I would want Muslims work for separation of Mosque and State so that somewhere on their lands some Christians can also buy land and write blogs and make churches without being persecuted. Lets not be hypocritically demanding.

    Love to all Humans regardless of faith color language ethnicity or economic status.

    Dr Umar Murad

    July 22, 2010 at 6:14 am |
  14. bobbymacbean

    For the record, I am a liberal Democrat who believes it is time to drive Israel to the bargaining table and to an equitable resolution by suspending financial aid until they do and the repetitive efforts by bloggers and journalists to label this a Tea Bag/Republican issue is offensive and disingenuous. You deny what is clearly the only truly bipartisan issue to confront us in a long time. This is not about the law. We all know the legal standing of this issue. This is about the human element involved which cries out over the cold hard legal aspect. There are times when we are called on as good neighbors to look past what our legal responsibilities are and consider what is best for our community.

    I have been participating in this debate since yesterday and here are my points so far.

    To muslims in particular and other American supporters of this project in general –

    This is not about you personally or you collectively. Those of you that state 9/11 has no religious basis because fellow muslims were also victims are in extreme denial. This fact does not validate that argument. Further, those of you that accuse of racism those that oppose this project can't have it both ways. Every race on the planet has membership in the muslim community. It is not about race either. It is about what was done in the name of your religion and to build a mosque on the site of such devastation for people to practice the religion that that devastation was done in the name of is OFFENSIVE ! It is INAPPROPRIATE ! It is COMMON SENSE ! If a christian fanatic blows up a family planning clinic and somebody buys that land and then wants to build a church on it, that too is OFFENSIVE ! That too is INAPPROPRIATE ! That too is COMMON SENSE ! It is not about muslims, it is not about christians. It is about common every day DECENCY. It is about common everyday EMPATHY for the hearts and souls of the people hurt by this and yes, the heart and soul of this Nation ! This is not a wound that will be healed for years to come.

    How is this not clear ? What is it that you do not understand ? There are muslims themselves who have stated that this is inappropriate. How is it that non muslims are so vigorously defending this project rather than empathizing with their own countrymen ? New York is a big place. There are plenty of alternative locations. Why, in the face of so much passionate opposition, is this location so vital ? I think this is a very important question that needs to be answered in full.

    There have been serious questions raised about the Cordoba Initiative, it's financial ties to Malaysia, it's president, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf and his true intentions. These too are very important questions that need to be answered in full.

    The Cordoba Initiative claims it is well intentioned in this project. There are very few people who know if this is true and if it is not, there could very well be serious consequences. Well intentioned or not, the decent thing to do here in the midst of so much passionate opposition is to discontinue this project. This is just common sense and common decency. If it was intended as an olive branch of some sort, clearly it is not being seen as such and they should just accept that their good intentions have not been received as intended and withdraw.

    I don't understand those who refuse to acknowledge that this is a very sensitive issue for most Americans. As Americans, even if you don't think so yourself, at least respect the fact that the majority of Americans do find this offensive and inappropriate in the extreme.

    July 21, 2010 at 10:33 pm |
    • commonsense

      Agree 100%

      July 23, 2010 at 8:16 pm |
  15. Ellery Davies

    I get it... Stephen Prothero argues that blocking a Mosque at ground zero is a win for terrorists, because they will have succeeded at changing our pluralistic ways of tolerance and coexistence. But the argument doesn't cut it, Stephen! Islam in this century stands for intolerance and in our front yard is inextricably linked with violence and hate. Imams here in the US call for the overthrow of America and death to Americans. The religion routinely calls any outsider an infidel (and you know what that brings, don't you?). It is just too much to ask that we look at these individuals as a fringe minority within a peaceful religion. The nuts are driving the car and we needn't choose to give them the auto loan and the dealership.

    I grew up in Skokie Illinois. Our village of 70,000 had a large number of concentration came survivors from Nazi Germany. Neighbors and store owners had numbers burned into their forearms at Auschwitz, Sobibor, Matthausen and Treblinka. While I supported the ACLU and admired their stance on free speech, they lost my respect and support when they backed the march of Nazis through the streets of Skokie. The ACLU claimed that political, legal and financial support was offered to these nuts in the name of free speech and fair representation. Perhaps they have the right - I don't know. But certainly, the ACLU could find other worthy causes for their time and money. The decision to represent these screwballs was about as looney as the intent to allow a mosque to be erected at Ground Zero. For HUNDREDS of millions of individuals (perhaps more than a billion around the world), that juxtaposition represents a win for radicals, cowards, and nut cases. The fact that it represents a religion of peace and tolerance most probably a PC delusion. At the very least, it is shockingly insensitive and inappropriate.

    Is there even a contest of opinion here? I realize that true freedom is not subject to the whims of public opinion, but let's just vet this one question: How many people in New York want to walk past a Mosque at Ground Zero. Seriously? How many?!

    July 21, 2010 at 4:13 pm |
  16. Alan

    The Muslims have a long history of destruction and murder. They also have a long history of building mosques on conquered lands, such as the Blue Mosque in Jerusalem (over the Jewish Temple) and the Church of Constantinople (Hagia Sophia) just to name two. No way should they be allowed the same desecration in Ny.
    In regard to all of you so-called peace and love Muslims...where are your voices when Islamic radicals murder women and children,..where is your outrage when Islamic radicals burn schools, stone women to death and target innocents for their cause. Your silence is deafening........

    July 21, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
    • Mar

      HAHA. I "love" this. You cronies do everything in your power to stop Islam from spreading, saying that peaceful Muslims don't denounce violence. But hey, here's the funny part, this mosque IS peaceful Muslims denouncing violence and creating a community center for peace-loving Muslims anhd giving them a voice in NYC.

      Not allowing them to raise their voice doesn't mean they don't have one.

      July 21, 2010 at 9:52 pm |
  17. Marirose

    Having a place for prayer and reflection at ground zero is most appropriate. However, if the Mulim community wants a place for their children to gather and people to share intercultural ideas I wonder why it has to be a Muslim center. I think a far better idea to honor all religions as well as all the religions represented my the thousands of people who died at ground zero and in Pennsylvania and Washing, D.C; would be to have a center where all religons can come and pray and share and dialogue. This should be a center representing all religions, funded by all relions and overseen by a committee representing all religions. Only if all ideologies come together in a community center for sharing will true understanding be achieved. If such a center were to exist it would be very informative to see who participates and is truely interested in growing in understanding and dialogue.

    July 21, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
  18. Donald Robert Sartain

    I'd be the first to say let any Religion build if they have legitimately bought the property, however it appears this owner and organization has ties to certain Terrorist Affiliated Groups. They may need to be put in jail or kicked out of the Country, instead of being allowed to build something smack dab against a National Memorial!
    Least ways, hold the process up until an Investigation is done!

    July 21, 2010 at 11:57 am |
  19. Dave

    Wow, just wow. I knew ignorance and intolerance was still alive, but I never knew it was so healthy in this country. Islam and Christianity have the same God. Yes, the same one. The Jews also believe in this God. It's like the difference between Catholics and Protestants. For those of you that no nothing of history, yes, the Catholics and Protestants also killed each other for petty differences in belief. The Koran does call for the non-believers to convert or to be killed, but it also states that Christians and Jews should not be killed if they do not convert as they believe in the same God. The Bible has a few off the wall statements also. People in the Bible were killed for all sorts of silly reasons, and a literal interpretation would mean that anyone who's eaten at Red Lobster should get ready for a stay in the underworld.
    There are just as many Christians that spew hate (just take a look at these comments) as their are Muslums. Show the entire Islamic community that we hold no ill will towards them and it will help to stop terrorism as a whole if not at least towards us. Islam didn't attack us on 9/11, some wack jobs in planes did.
    Every time a Christian performs an act of terrorism do we draw a two mile radius and outlaw churches in that area? No? Then stop being so hypocritical.

    July 21, 2010 at 11:32 am |
    • Mar

      Well said!

      July 21, 2010 at 9:53 pm |
  20. Justin

    Wow Boston Univ. must be proud.

    July 21, 2010 at 10:40 am |
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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.