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. Mark

    I have no issue with a mosque being built in NYC. However it's relative location to ground zero is insensitive and will only increase the anti-muslim feelings there. When will the muslims allow a synagogue to be built in Mecca? Hmmm, never. The terrorist don't win if this isn't built at this location. Don't dismiss people's moral convictions and love for their country as anything else. Remember, these are the same religous zealots the US helped when they were under attach from the Soviet Union. Now they want to destroy us. Don't give them a base to do it right on one of the most hallowed grounds in the US.

    August 3, 2010 at 12:18 pm |
  2. Nick2

    A breath of commonsense goes a long way in deflating the pomposity and prepostorous agenda of those who would equate Islam with terrorism. Ignorance is not cool – it is downright stupid.

    August 3, 2010 at 12:15 pm |
  3. Condell


    August 3, 2010 at 12:11 pm |
  4. Big D

    We weren't attacked by the Muslim religion, but by individuals who were Muslim.

    We cannot be so symbolically motivated as to disallow the freedom of religion because of the people who misinterpret it or apply it wrongly. There are Christians who do the same thing (abortion clinic bombings). Should churches not be allowed near these places?

    August 3, 2010 at 12:10 pm |
  5. Rusnet

    A mosque next to the Ground Zero is a spit in the face of all those who died at 9/11. Nothing more, nothing less....

    August 3, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
  6. Bobby

    It is not about hating a religion. It is a matter of respect. The Muslim religion worldwide has many factions. Some good. Some evil. Muslims really do not separate the good from the evil in their religion. The evil faction is just as prominent as the good. That is why families that lost loves ones and True American citizens ask for respect near this site. No other Religion I know of in the world supports both a evil murderous faction and a good faction. We know not of which is which. Respect us please.

    August 3, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
  7. Jack Kegley

    Let us get the information straight. The Cultural Center that is proposed to be built is two New York blocks from the Ground Zero site. As someone who lived in Manhattan for two years and helps clear our offices in the World Trade Center 6 months before the attack, two blocks is a great distance. It is a cultural center that will include a small mosque, and restaurants and a library and educational facility and a number of other things. If we are the tolerant nation we are supposed to be, we respect the lives and lifestyle of American Muslims (and Jews, and Sikhs, and Baptists, and Catholics and Presbyterians and agnostics and atheists, and etc.) Muslims died at ground zero, as people in the towers, as firefighters, as policemen and as soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting for the religious freedom of all Americans. As a Vietnam Veteran, I know what hatred can be like (remember the "baby killer" comments of the Anti-Vietnam crowd) and yet I would fight for their right to make those comments because that is what separates us from most of the rest of the world. The cultural center will be a great addition to NYC, a city I love, and a testament to just who we really are

    August 3, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
  8. Ric

    The writer of this article is indeed an idiot!! Ok then, I guess it's alright to build a shine to the Nazi's at Baden-Baden, or at any concentration camp that killed Jews and others?? What's next, a Tim McVie memorial at the site of the Oklahoma bombing?? How about a Lee Harvey Oswald one at the Texas School Book Depsitory?? Or one for Charles Manson?? Or RFK's killer at the spot seeing as how the hotel was knocked down??

    August 3, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
  9. American Tuareg

    Actually, the terrorists of 9/11 are still regarded as heroes throughout the Muslim world. Sure, most will halfheartedly condemn 9/11 when confronted by westerners, but I have as yet to meet a Muslim in my travels that says they were "wrong" to attack us. For the Islamic world this mosque is a major trophy. And it's hugely satisfying for them to see it built with so little protest from us. Make no mistake; it was Islam that razed a major America icon and took so many innocent lives, and at the cost of a very few Muslim martyrs. One nation's terrorists are another's heroes. And regardless of what they tell you, that mosque is being erected to honor those heroes.

    August 3, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
  10. benson

    geez this author is an idiot. i'm starting to wonder if all these so-called supporters are being paid, you really can't be this stupid not to see what this mosque will symbolize to followers can you?

    August 3, 2010 at 11:54 am |
  11. Me

    In a city the size of New York there are literally thousands of other places this building could have been put. This place was chosen specifically for it's symbolic value. This action is common throughout Islamic history, from the "The Dome of the Rock" built over the Jewish temple in Israel to the Islamification of the Hagia Sophia and construction of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque over the palace of the Byzantine emporers. They build mosques on the sites of their victories over infidels.. and this mosque is no different.

    And what the terrorists want is the Islamification of the civilized world, and this certainly is a step in that direction.

    August 3, 2010 at 11:53 am |
  12. dcleathem

    I am verry progressive, and I am verry liberal, on this issue though I have to say allowing a mosque at the site of the bombing is ludacris. A mosque at ground zero is an open invitation to do it again, it is a phyisical celebration of victory for the bombers and their religion. ISLAM is not a peacful religion, jihad is thier duty kill us or convert us, ALL OF US. Have you all not heard of the verse of the sword, wake up, you are sowing the seed of your own destruction!

    August 3, 2010 at 11:52 am |
  13. Ana

    NO Mosque at Ground Zero. Construct somewhere else!!

    August 3, 2010 at 11:49 am |
  14. Tired

    Couldn't be more wrong. Building a mosque there would be like erecting a statue of Emperor Hirohito at Perl Harbor.

    August 3, 2010 at 11:40 am |
    • Tired

      ...Oops!!! That's Pearl Harbor...

      August 3, 2010 at 11:43 am |
  15. How about it Mecca?

    We are so tolerant and undertanding in America, let's see how tolerant the peace lovers are when I try to build a church in Mecca.

    August 3, 2010 at 11:36 am |
  16. Sachin

    This is ridiculous.
    WHY MOSQUE ???????????????????????

    August 3, 2010 at 11:34 am |
  17. American First

    There are already over 100 mosques in NYC, which means this argument has nothing to do with religious freedom and everything to do with Muslims wishing to rub salt in our wounds. Make no mistake, I have lived among Muslims in a time of war and know full well how treacherous and deceitful they can be in the name of 'Allah'. As for Bloomberg, he's is either a fool or he's been paid off or both. It doesn't matter. What does matter is this mosque is an abomination that makes a mockery of our honored dead, and will forever stab at the hearts of the families of the victims of 9/11.

    August 3, 2010 at 11:33 am |
    • dcleathem


      August 3, 2010 at 11:55 am |
  18. vaseer

    I agree 100%. Tolerance is the best way to tackle this kind of problems. If we can not tolerate the others, what can we expect from others, and i believe this is the best of American way.God bless america.

    August 3, 2010 at 11:32 am |
  19. LouLN

    A fireman, who's father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were also career firefighters, had a bad day and killed his wife, infant daughter, twin 4 year old boys, mother-in-law, an aunt, and a niece in a fit of rage. Are all firefighters evil because of the acts of this one? Hmmmm...

    August 3, 2010 at 11:32 am |
    • Watching Out

      You call that "a bad day"? I call it a psychotic man.

      But - please note, the Islamic terrorists who flew planes into the Twin Towers were NOT acting in a "fit of rage". They planned it out, they took lessons on how to steer the planes, and they fully intended "with malice aforethought" to destroy these symbols of Western commerce and to kill as many Infidels as possible to please their bloodthirsty god, Allah. The Islamic Holy Scriptures tell Muslims that jihad is good, killing unbelievers is good, and –even if a given Muslim doesn't want to go off killing others, "Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you ... Allah knoweth, and ye know not."

      August 3, 2010 at 12:59 pm |
  20. Gino Rodrigues

    This is a bad ideal. It would be different if they treated the building as a sacaried place of holy worship, they in fact do not. they use the mosque as a place to plan out para military type strikes, kill their oposition, a place to hide from authorities after they have waged war, killed their fellow muslims. People the King of Jorden put it correctly, this is a muslim on muslim war.
    The mosque has no place being in New York let alone near ground zero, tell them to butt out. Why dont they rebuild the mosque in Pakistan where they murdered one of the poiticians in Karachi. Now another 45 muslims have died in the name of what, who, whom. Forget the mosque at ground zero. Stop giving in to those a...holes...I mean really

    August 3, 2010 at 11:31 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.