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. John

    I'm not really sure how "America wins" if this mosque is allowed, which it seems pretty certain it will be, built. This is a much larger issue then one mosque being built. This concerns islamic thought and philosophy about world wide calipahates, how they envision this coming about, their patience in the struggle, the west's blindness towards it, etc. Read the article here, it explains things much better then i can


    August 3, 2010 at 12:46 pm |
  2. Chloe Mydia

    Hey com to my house and get sum

    August 3, 2010 at 12:46 pm |
  3. Andy

    All religion is man made. A bunch of dudes who were skitzos and thought god was talking to them. Since man invented religion we should not believe it to the point where we kill each other. We have all been fighting from day one and there is no resolution until we all kill each other. Therefore building a mosque there will only be adding fuel to fire. We are all wrong and no one knows the truth. Judgment day is ahead of us and we will soon find out what is the truth. We either die or rot on earth or we go to heaven or hell. Good Luck! In the meantime just enjoy life and stop the bickering.

    August 3, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
  4. Rob

    Didn't they build a Honda dealership on a barge in Pearl Harbor 9 years after the attack?

    August 3, 2010 at 12:42 pm |
  5. Joe Vancil

    I agree that allowing an Islamic culture center to be built close to ground zero is a great statement of what we are as a country.

    We're selfish, self-important cowards.

    We're more worried about "statement" than compassion. We're more worried with our own rights than we are to respect how our actions hurt others. This cultural center would never have been PROPOSED by any group of people with the "American" values I was raised with. Proposing such a thing would have been DIVISIVE and against fellow Americans at a time when we should be standing together – most especially helping to heal the wounds delivered to the families of the 9/11 victims.

    I oppose the mosque. It was proposed with the idea that "my rights are just as important as yours are." And that is abuse of liberty and freedom. It is the same type of "freedom" that saw rise to the Confederacy – a belief that an individual's rights trump everything else.

    We are a society embittered in division. Conservative vs. Liberal. Democrat vs. Republican. Capitalist vs. Socialist. Pro-life vs. Pro-choice. Pro- vs. Anti-government health care.

    In exercise of our rights, we forget of our responsibilities – namely, that of caring for our fellow countrymen.

    We should focus the exercise of "rights" in ways that sustain each other – not in ways that continue the divisiveness that will ultimately be our downfall.

    August 3, 2010 at 12:40 pm |
    • Michael

      This country was built on the ideal of the individual, not the collective, which is why the Bill of Rights is written as a list of things the government can't deprive you of. The second I give the government the right to deprive someone else the right to deprive someone of their liberties, I give them the permission to do the same to me.

      August 3, 2010 at 12:49 pm |
    • Joe Vancil


      The country was built on the rights of the individual, with the expectation that the individual was looking out for more than just himself. You're right about the importance of the rights to the individual, but I respectfully submit that rights that are divisive need to be used with far more caution than modern-day Americans use them.

      If America is to be greater than the sum of its parts, we must find more ways to work together. By definition, that means we have to stop TRYING to be divisive. Yes, we have the right to do it. But more importantly, we have responsibility to our fellow Americans to be respectful of them.

      August 3, 2010 at 3:56 pm |
  6. renee

    I think tbhat it is a bad idea, it is passible to find another place, not near the Graund "0". I thing it has to be a referendum for the people of NY

    August 3, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
  7. Cli Toris

    No I said no

    August 3, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
  8. Boomer

    The mosque will never be built...guaranteed!

    August 3, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  9. Heywood Jablome

    I have a few choice words for Moslems – Heywood Jablome

    August 3, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  10. Mike Hunt

    This really hurts Mike Hunt

    August 3, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
  11. Jack Mehoff

    Hey Muslims – Jack Mehoff

    August 3, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
  12. Abdullah

    I say we build a non denominational Jewish.Islamic/Christian hybrid building where all fools who believe in Myths can worship equally. No discrimination, just put money in the collection plate and blindly worship your own mythical god as you see fit.

    August 3, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
    • Andrew

      I agree. Why discriminate? The Moses/Jesus/Muhammad Fantasy Park with special guest Tom Cruise to explain OT 5.73942 experiences and pass around a saved sample of L. Ron Hubbard's grundle hair.

      August 3, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
  13. A_Nonny_Mouse

    Actually– No, sir, this is NOT a good idea.

    If the Muslims are (as the fairy-dust-and-unicorn believers claim) promoting "healing" and "tolerance", they will –themselves– offer to move this building to a less-sensitive site.

    But you and I both know, that is not their REAL intention. Therefore, we also both know they WILL NOT make the offer.

    And by that very non-action, it should become obvious to ALL Americans who have any knowledge of Islam and its history of violent conquest that this proposed building is PURPOSEFULLY INTENDED AS A MONUMENT TO ISLAM'S DESTRUCTION OF THE TWIN TOWERS.

    August 3, 2010 at 12:28 pm |
    • John

      Exactley. A monument to victory as is the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople ("why'd they change it? I think we know), The Dome, mosgue on the temple mount in Jeruselum and countless other examples. Remember people, once islam claims something, be it a counrty, building lot, etc., it can NEVER revert to a non-islamic use. Hell, they still claim Spain.

      August 3, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  14. Michael

    Its sad there is such vehement opposition to the building of this mosque. People are unable to separate the actions of 20 zealots from the hundreds of millions of peaceful and loving members of the Muslim faith. It's not even on the acutal site of the WTC, its a piece of private property 2 blocks away. The problem in today's world is everyone cries that their rights are being violated, then when something they don't like is happening, then the desire to impede their "god given" rights as americans is just seen as "necessary". The "love it or leave it crowd" needs to understand that the welcoming of all is what this country was built upon, and if they can't "love" that, then they need to be shown the door.

    Also to the wingnut Christian brigade, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all trace their roots back to Abraham, so we're all worshipping the same god, we each just have our own route to get there.

    August 3, 2010 at 12:27 pm |
    • Watching Out

      Muslims claim that Allah is the same God as the one Jews and Christians worship; but this can't be so. The Judeo-Christian God does not instruct His followers to "SLAY THE UNBELIEVERS WHEREVER YOU FIND THEM".

      That's the only refutation it takes.... Allah is A TOTALLY DIFFERENT "GOD".

      August 3, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
    • Michael

      And the Crusades were... what exactly? Christians going into the Middle East, saying convert or die, and we're going to keep all your valuables. I'm sure I can find just as many verses in the Old Testament where God gives permission to smite blasphemers as there are verses in the Koran. These books aren't fallable, they were written by men in history with agendas. I went to Catholic school for the better part of two decades and have enough theological understanding as most any person who doesn't study theology as a career/life calling, the Bible is as flawed as the Torah or the Koran or any other book of faith, because PEOPLE are the ones willing to interpret it however they need to in order to justify that which gives them power and influence

      August 3, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
    • John

      That's a very simplistic version of the crusades. The 1st crusade was organized to protect Christians from molems as they went on pilgrimages to the traditional Christian holy cities of Damascus and other Syrian sites. Over the course of time the crusades did degenerate in opportunistic wars, but don't forget, the muslims perfected the "convert or you die" strategy in Syria, Turkey, Egypt, bulgaria, you name it.

      August 3, 2010 at 1:04 pm |
    • Michael

      My apologies, I was using hyperbole to make a point, which is every major western religion has had a period of forcible conversion, whether or was the people of Israel in the old testament, christian knights in the crusades or those puritans who killed the Native Americans when colonizing North America, and sadly, fundamentalist Muslims in the past. Today's battles, however, are much more political than theological.

      August 3, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  15. NA

    What a terrirfic article.

    The KKK are/were terrorists, but not all Christians believe in what they do. In fact, very few do. Every religion has its share of extremists, fundamentalists, zealots and crazies. Islam is no different. People. learn to love, not hate. Muslims did not perpetrate the acts of 9/11, terrorists who claimed to be Muslim did. I have traveled to many Muslim countries and, contrary to what many of you suggest, there is actually a high degree of religious tolerance in those places. There are Christians and Jews living in Muslim-majority countries today with no issues. Most Muslims are tolerant and peace-loving. Reflecting on history, every religion has had terrorists. Today, Muslims are the target, but tomorrow, it could be your group. Before you judge Muslims, meet them, talk to them and learn a thing or two about Muslim-majority countries before you judge and hate.

    August 3, 2010 at 12:26 pm |
    • Tim

      The thing is, many christians have abhorred the KKK and such activities. Where are the islamic leaders abhorring and admonishing and rebuking the terrorist. Peaceful Muslims please stand up. i'm assuming all you peaceful muslims are part off the freemuslims coalition which apparently is the only muslim organization that has actually denounced terrorism. If not then you are probably a sypathizer with terrorists. This will only fuel the hate in the end. Personally i'll probably come check out the center if it is built but i don't expect a great recmption from everyone else until there is a great outpour of disassocation with terrorism or any ideolgy related to it. sorry but there is so only so much that one can tolerate, unless you're immanuel kant living in your library all the time.

      August 3, 2010 at 9:20 pm |
  16. Amer

    There are the rightwing Christians who cannot see the growth of Islam who are raising bruahaha. When America was discovered, the navigator on the ship was Moroccan Muslim. Muslims along with Christians set foot on US soil the same day. So, for some people to believe America is a Christian nation or a nation of one religion only is not true. America still has the potential to prove to the world that it can be an example of tolerance for its citizens irrespective of their race or religion. Unfortunately, because of the bad government, it is being looked at as a war machine heading towards Africa, Asia and South America. YES, I DO LOVE AMERICA AND I AM AN AMERICAN CITIZEN.

    August 3, 2010 at 12:26 pm |
  17. 4 peace


    August 3, 2010 at 12:24 pm |
  18. Len

    What a slap in the face to the families who had relatives and friends die during 9/11. Build a mosque so 'peaceful' Muslims can pray for Allah to embolden more terrorists. Give me a break! The Muslims want to do that in Jerusalem as well, build a mosque at the site of the Jewish temple. Islam is not a religion of peace but a cult. A religion that treats women like dogs and kills innocent people in the name of a god. Again, give me a break. Why don't peaceful Muslims truly stand up against the jihadists. It is because they are afraid to be called "infidels" as well. This is not what the true God envisioned for the world. Read the Koran!

    August 3, 2010 at 12:23 pm |
  19. Joe R.

    Now all we need to do is convince Muslim nations to show the same respect toward Christians, Jews, atheists, and other religions. The reality is, however, being anything other than muslim in those countries results in persecution – including murder. How ironic that America is the Devil to these nations and yet mosques are allowed here.

    August 3, 2010 at 12:23 pm |
  20. Dennis

    I agree with Rusnet, there is no need for a mosque so close to the World Trade Center Site, it is hugely disrespectful.

    August 3, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39
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.