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. Jim Weaver

    Are you kidding?? It was a group of MUSLIM terrorists that used an airliner full of innocent people of all faiths to kill hundreds of other innocent people of all faiths in and around the WTC in the most heinous act of murder ever perpetrated on American soil. We shouldn't be appeasing this apostate religion by allowing these people to desecrate the site hallowed by the blood of innocents.

    August 3, 2010 at 11:28 am |
  2. FromChicago

    Because of the idiots and moron like Stephen Prothero, who is supposed to be a scholar too, this country is going in the wrong direction. I can not believe that this kind of article gets published on CNN.com. I will switch to Foxnews. Muslims are evil people. They hate this country, people and other religions ... and they have no right to live here.

    August 3, 2010 at 11:27 am |
  3. Amanda

    well said

    August 3, 2010 at 11:27 am |
  4. FromCharlotte

    A Mosque can be built in NYC as soon as the OK is provided for a Synagogue to be constructed in Mecca. How about that?

    August 3, 2010 at 11:24 am |
    • jean

      When Churches and Synagogues are built in Saudi Arabia then yes

      August 3, 2010 at 12:13 pm |
  5. Linda

    Bad idea.

    August 3, 2010 at 11:24 am |
  6. eaglepov

    I support the notion of property rights but there is always the matter of consideration for others in what any of us choose to do. Like it or not, a majority of regular folks think building a mosque at or near the World Trade Center towers is just plain insensitive. It is folly to believe this bit of construction is some kind of effective and necessary bridge between two cultures–it will, instead, be a bone in the throat of those who lost family or friends, or the rest of the majority who will not forgive a senseless attack on innocents. . .it was just dumb luck that many, many more were not lost on September 11. There are other places to build a mosque that will not be, forever, like a red cape in front of a bull. Just how out of touch are our elected officials and the social engineers masquerading as editors these days?

    August 3, 2010 at 11:23 am |
  7. FromChicago

    Even thinking about it disgusts me .... It's a trophy for Muslims and their terrorists brothers ...

    August 3, 2010 at 11:21 am |
  8. John

    You really are a moron. This is one of the most pompous, ignorant, and embarrassing articles i have ever read. What exactly qualifies you as a scholar? That you got good grades? Does that make you intelligent or a good student or do you simply have a good memory. I can assure you that 95% of the people who actually are able to be NY executives are far more savvy than you and are far more qualified to speak on this matter. This has nothing to do with religious freedom. This has everything to do with the physical aspect and location of the facility. It doesn't matter what it's for. We know that the terrorists are of Islam. This is a fact. Let's stop pretending it's not. People should of course be free to practice their religion openly and freely. However, to put up a facility, no matter how good the intentions, provide a new way for terrorists to infiltrate an American symbol and an American dream. It is a potential base of operations for terrorists whether the good willed mosque owners know realize it or not. It is a direct pipeline to allow a person to freely walk into the building with a suitcase bomb and blow up Freedom Tower, which is being built as a symbol of our resilience and dedication to surviving a horrible tragedy. Do you know what goes on in private meetings in Mosques between sub-committees of Mosques? Do you know who they let in and who they don't? Is there a "no fly" list for mosques? This is endangering not only New York but a symbol of American life. You wasted your time writing something so naive. A scholar, you are not.

    August 3, 2010 at 11:20 am |
  9. Henry

    The Muslim are laughing at the American people. We bomb the world trade Center and we are going to build a chuch at ground zero. It is another slap in our face. Wake up America.

    August 3, 2010 at 11:20 am |
  10. miclynkau

    This is mindboggling stupidity. Why on earth would the council vote for this. This is for islam to show their conquest to the world that they took down the trade centers, the symbols of America, just like when they built their temple in Jerusalem next to Solomon's temple to show the world their conquest of Israel. This is truly the beginning to the end. Why are these politicians so blind to this?

    August 3, 2010 at 11:17 am |
  11. Jew

    Maybe some Christian will fly a plane into it...

    August 3, 2010 at 11:14 am |
  12. Jew

    Terrorist! Give the terrorist a place near by to celebrate 9/11.

    August 3, 2010 at 11:13 am |
  13. Sandy

    This is the most stupid decision taken my liberal elites who have not suffered and decide based on their beliefs instead of public opinions. I say based on experience living as a non muslim in a muslim community. You can never teach peace to muslims as the religion itself is based on violence.

    This decision will come to bite us and muslim terrorists will see us as weak and will come back to harm us more.

    August 3, 2010 at 11:12 am |
  14. Maeve

    It amazes me. I've heard over and over again," If they build it, we will burn it.", But the idiots of the project don't care about the American people, only their own agendas and of course their wallets. I can't wait to visit all the new churches and synagogues being built in Saudi Arabia and around the middle east !! Ha

    August 3, 2010 at 11:11 am |
  15. Localola

    The question is: Why there? Why would anyone want to deliberately spit in the face of the fallen or of their families who still grieve today KNOWING that it will cause a controversy? There are tons of places to build a Mosque in New York, yet they want it in that specific location. Gives me cause to think that all is not what it seems, and our government is so busy being politically correct, they fail to see what is the real reason for this choice of location. Do you think it would be proper to build a Nazi Museum next to a Synagogue? This issue is akin to that. It may not be illegal, but it is morally incorrect and cruel. If the Muslim's want to have a Mosque to promote unity and love with their neighbor, they sure aren't doing it by championing this cause.

    August 3, 2010 at 10:43 am |
  16. fowl

    america is based on freedom...religion, being probably the most controversial. i am proud to live here because of that. i guess my only question is why there? i mean, why does it need to be built there...its just creating disconnect and anger amongst the people. i probably need to do more research first but i just dont see why it has to be built THERE. its like people just want to stir something up i guess. i dunno, im both ways, i think it would show our compassion and growth as a country, but then i think i wonder if its just to raise eyebrows and cause problems

    August 3, 2010 at 9:58 am |
  17. mot

    It is really clear that Steven Prothero never read the Koran, Hadiths or the life of Mohammed. Very stupid piece for a religion scholar.

    July 27, 2010 at 11:46 am |
  18. Brian

    To Jacob, freedom within America is a TWO way street.
    Not everyone is going to like a Mosque being built where it is supposed to.
    They have EVERY right to give their opinion.
    They are NOT opposing America's core princilpes, they are asserting them, by using their right to free speech.
    You want to practice your right to religion?
    Fine, but others have every right to criticize and condemn it if they wish.
    That's how freedom works.

    July 26, 2010 at 4:13 pm |
  19. Allan

    Your reasoning is admirably reasonable. However, I look further than New York City for examples of American values. I also look at places in the world where legitimate American interests are being represented. This is not a nice world. It is dangerous. We have a right and obligation to expect equitable reciprocity wherever we operate. Could we build a church in any Arab country-especially the ones we are defending? Do you remember the scene of President Obama bowing to the Saudi king? Or of former President Bush walking hand in hand with the Saudi king? Why? Do they own us? When do we insist on some balance, and how are we to get beyond the reality of 911 with a mosque staring us in the face?

    July 25, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
  20. Jacob

    It is truly amazing to see such a succession of "Red White and Blue bleeding Americans" and true Patriots passionatly defend our great nation while simultaneously stomping on the very ideals and core principles that make her great.

    July 24, 2010 at 5:06 pm |
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About this blog

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.