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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. Lisa Ewart

    Let's not forget that the Muslims responsible for 9/11 were not interpreting the religion as most Muslims do today, and, consequently, they committed horrific and unjust acts of hatred towards the innocent. Are there Muslims who are peaceful and do not promote, enable, or encourage terrorism? Almost anyone living in Manhattan will know such a person. Stereotyping can be extremely dangerous. If an Irish man were to go on a killing spree at 125th & Broadway, would we forbid the Irish to live or build within a small radius of the crime scene? I understand and sympathize with the victims of 9/11, but let's understand what an opposition to the building of a mosque could translate into in terms of how we punish the innocent because of their racial, ethnic, or religious similarities to criminals. This is America. I'm happy that I have my religious, political, and cultural freedom in this country. Aren't you? Be careful what you wish for!

    August 3, 2010 at 1:29 pm |
  2. American Believer

    World Religion should promote peace and understanding. Building a singular religious center in an area tha promotes fear and hurt and anger is not with any religious teaching. I am not opposed to a mosque being built, but to build it in a place where the site will intentially cause pain is wrong.

    August 3, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
  3. Inquisitor

    Why is it important to the muslims that this be built at or near the WTC site?

    August 3, 2010 at 1:18 pm |
    • Cruciblethorn

      It is a sign of their victory over us and will embolden more muslims to continue to attack us on all fronts. Research the man and the organization that wants to build this, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf. ....he's a terrorist lover and supporter.

      August 3, 2010 at 1:27 pm |
  4. common sense

    As someone already said here , yes they have the right to build here. But is it the RIGHT thing to do? No, not so much. Now i am not a religious person by any means and i do not think all Muslims are suicide bombers, but the people who blew up the towers were of the Muslim faith...yes a misconstrued version but still carrying by all means a Muslim flag. Now lets relate this to your house.... lets say you have a house that has a nice view of the water or mountains but that view goes through your neighbors yard. Your neighbor has a large yard but for some reason wants to put up a structure that will ruin your view. They could put up this structure anywhere on their vast piece of land but instead ruin your view. Now do they have the right to build it ? Yes, yes they do...is it the right thing to do if you are a good neighbor and have other places to put it? No not so much. So if you have some common sense and want to be a good neighbor and would like people to give your faith another chance then think about what you are doing.

    August 3, 2010 at 1:11 pm |
  5. Alex

    How many of you are New Yorkers? How many of you live here? How many of you actually were here in NYC when this happened? How many of you lost someone on that day? I'm guessing very few of you did. I did. I was born here. It is ridiculous to me how much more people who are not from here, have no real association to this use this as an excuse for hatred, intolerance and ignorance. It isn't your call. No one here cares about what you think.
    We in New York are about living together in a true melting pot. Those of here understand that true Muslims who live here are not like these terrorists. All religions have extremists, even Christians! Waco, Texas, David Koresh is an example. Yet it does not represent an entire religion! So please, keep your indignation to yourself, we don't need you to be indignant for us, nor want it.

    August 3, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
  6. mikeh

    It is disrespectful. It is now well known, non muslims are not inspired by this fancy dedication of faith. yet they bless us with their 6th century hospitality now as on 9/11. im not claiming big scary terorist legion of doom, however, if you want to play nice in the sandbox, you dont crap in the sand.

    August 3, 2010 at 1:06 pm |
  7. Eric

    JOE: that is not a great point because we are supposed to be BETTER than Saudi Arabia and Iran. If you want to become like them then fine...but you are no longer an American.

    August 3, 2010 at 1:03 pm |
  8. Cruciblethorn

    As someone stated above they won't let anyone build churches in Mecca or Medina. Actually, if you are an infidel and get too close they will behead you quicker than you can say Allahu Akbar.

    August 3, 2010 at 1:03 pm |
  9. Concerned not Crazy

    We are a nation of laws. We are a nation built on religous freedom and tolerance. Islam didn't commit 9/11. Islamic Terrorists did. Muslims continue to be in denial concerning the extent that radicalism has infected the faith. There are large numbers of islamic terrorists. Ask New Yorkers, London subway, Beirut emabassy, Mumbai India, times square bomber etc etc etc.

    We should allow the Mosuqe to be purchased and built because we are tolerant and a nation of laws. The mulims involved should elect to move elsewhere if they are truly the sensitive, peace loving, and respectful people they claim to be.

    August 3, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
  10. Glennon Simmons

    Time will prove that this will only open wounds and cause conflict. This is the worst idea, and insult, and to the panel that voted this thing in – shame on you.

    August 3, 2010 at 12:59 pm |
  11. ISLAM1

    I think its a GREAT IDEA!!!! Ahumduallah!!! Allah is GREAT!!!!! There are a lot of muslims in this world and in NEW YORK CITY and this is a great chance for all MUSLIMS to be heard!! NOT ALL MUSLIMS ARE TERRORIST!!! FOR THE IGNORANT, MUSLIMS HAVE COLLEGE DEGREES AND ARE DRS, LAWYERS AND PROFESSORS. I CANT WAIT TO GO THERE!!! YIPPEEE

    August 3, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
  12. Mark

    Do they have the right to build the mosque there legally? Yes, I don't see how that can be prevented and to make the building "historical" would just be a ruse. It is however very disrespectful and a slap in the face to the families that lost loved ones on 9/11 and all of the non-Muslims of America. It can not lead to any good or harmony between Muslims and non-Muslims if the mere idea of it has divided people this much. It is yet another point of tension and arguements. We have enough of those already.

    August 3, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
  13. rdg1

    America was the strongest nation in the world, now it will struggle just to survive. I am no longer proud to be an American.

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

    It doesn't matter. What do they always do, whereever they go, throughout history? They crap where they live. My dog doesn't even do that. Their flagship center will just be one more craphole of internal dissent with whoever has the most guns the winner! You can't have it both ways muzzies.

    August 3, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
  15. Annal Penetration

    a non denominational gay club would be best for the freaks

    August 3, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
  16. Disgrace

    Mr Jack Mehoff you are a disgrace, you and Hugh Jass and Mike Hunt both

    August 3, 2010 at 12:49 pm |
  17. JoeBlowe

    There is NO really good reason to build a mosque or any other Muslim edifice in that area .... EXCEPT as a reminder to everyone in the world that it was MUSLIM extremists who killed 3000 and knocked down those towers. The very IDEA of putting a Muslim building there is offensive, and I can't help but wonder: Whose idea WAS that, exactly? And what are their REAL motives, exactly? Won't the entire Muslim world have a good laugh if we let a Mosque be built there – and they run a school inside it preaching hatred of Americans? (Which, I suspect they will.)

    August 3, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
  18. Joe, San Diego

    Every day we are reminded that the Yankees beat the South, the Giants beat the Raiders, the Spanish railroads, child labour, women's right to vote, Native Americans given casinos, Blacks were slaves and immigrants built this country... just another symbol of moving forward from the US past

    August 3, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
  19. Nick2

    Do we equate Italians with Mafia? Do we equate Jews with the likes of Meyer Lansky? Are Germans all Nazis? Where is your common sense – you people who all cry foul when a group of Americans want to renovate a site which is already being used for prayers, to a cultural center.

    August 3, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  20. Sucmy Balls

    Hey just do it

    August 3, 2010 at 12:47 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.