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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. Chuck

    Just so you know, there are an estimated 7 million Muslims who are also American. The people who want to open the mosque are also American. There were Muslim Americans in the WTC when it went down. You must have very poor reading comprehension if you didn't get the author's point, we are not at war with Islam.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:04 pm |
  2. wileysee

    it just goes to show that if you search hard enough and long enough, you will always be able to find an idiot somewhere to support an untenable position. you will also find some half witted, half baked media site like cnn to publish "him".

    July 19, 2010 at 7:03 pm |
  3. ja-mez

    would Mohammed agree? YES he would. In case anyone didnt know: Mohammed beheaded dozens of jews when he was spreading his "religion" and gave the order to massacre hundreds of others. Islam is NOT a peaceful religion. Does anyone realize that non muslims living in muslim countries have been driven out, persecuted etc in ALL muslim countries. Not just in the present day; this has been going on for centuries.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:02 pm |
    • Jacko

      That's a load of BS. Mohammed regarded the Jews and Christians as "People of the book" and protected them. I hate people that are ignorant of history who invent BS

      July 19, 2010 at 7:09 pm |
  4. abbaduke

    Islam, like the other two salvation religions – Christianity, and Judaism, are evil cancers on society. Islamic people demand that females wear the habib, or the burkha! This is so much against United States civil rights for citizens! I hope that France will outlaw this demeaning practice in their country, and I hope that rational, compassionate humans will put Islam on the fire pits of failed, inhuman ideas!!!!!!!!!!!

    July 19, 2010 at 7:02 pm |
  5. JAM

    This is a very stupid idea. A mosque does not belong anywhere in the vicinity of Ground Zero. You can claim that American Muslims are peaceful all you want, but the bottom line is it was non-peaceful Muslims that brought down the twin towers. This will do nothing to heal the pain and suffering from 9/11 and will rip open old wounds and leave the ugliest scars imaginable. This idea totally disgusts me and I am disgusted with anyone who thinks this is the right thing to do.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:02 pm |
  6. keith

    Yeah, let's all hold hands and sing!.... Why don't we ask our European neighbors how embracing muslims has worked out for them? Not so well and now their having to deal with all the bulls_ _t that came along with all there tolerance of a "peaceful" religion. If they don't want to give non muslims and women equal rights in their eyes then they need to go back to a country that believes what they do and not try to push their believes on us!

    July 19, 2010 at 7:01 pm |
  7. George

    Why do Muslims build build mosques on top of the ruins of churches and synagogues as they did in Jerusalem and other places? Why do they want to build a mosque so close to the ruins of the world trade center? is it that they are showing respect or are they showing they are replacing the others religions with theirs?

    July 19, 2010 at 7:00 pm |
  8. Mobius007

    Well, Afganistan is now the longest military conflict in US history with no end in sight, so I guess a mosque in New York is OK – they've won!

    July 19, 2010 at 7:00 pm |
    • Frogist

      Is it the longest? That's an interesting thought. Can you provide references, please? Wiki says it's the Vietnam War in which we had involvement from 1950 to 1975.

      July 21, 2010 at 2:40 pm |
  9. Mary

    A moron granted the building permit for this Mosque. What a slap in the face to America.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:00 pm |
  10. Jamie

    Go ahead and build it, I give it about 4 months tops before it is burned to the ground. Maybe we can use it to make smoers so it won't be a total loss. There is no way in hell that mosque should be built so close to the epicenter of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Respect the Americans that lost their lives and respect their families. If that isn't the first priority then get out of America and go somewhere else.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
    • amyc

      So it's ok for us to terrorize Muslims? Why are you against terrorists from one culture/religion but ok when some other religion does it?

      You talk about respecting the people who dies, but you seem to forget that there were many Muslims in that building who died along with the Muslims who were serving as firefighters. There are many places of worship from many different religions in the same area as ground zero. Do deny them a mosque would be promoting religious intolerance and against our American ideals of religious freedom. It would take us one step closer to being a theocratic state like many of the nations in the Middle East.

      I see so many comments on here saying that they haven't heard the "moderate Muslims" speak out against extremists, but they seem to not listen. Anytime I see a Muslim leader speak out against extremists, the right wing media goes into turmoil trying to connect that leader to extremists. It's a lose-lose situation. Anytime somebody speaks out, they get smeared, if they say nothing, they still get smeared.

      July 20, 2010 at 1:48 am |
  11. dwighthuth

    He is the same as the Sharian nuts who run Iran along with those terrorists that want to turn America into The New Middle East. By putting a mosque at ground zero would indicate that the terrorists have won. Why else would someone want to put a mosque on a plot of land where American's were killed by Taliban Terrorists? It's saying that yes we were attacked by terrorists that use mosques to worship in and now we should commerate that attack and those deaths with a mosque that is nothing more than a memorial to what the Taliban did that morning! The only monument that should be erected is a pyramid with a flattened top with six eternal flame torches rising 33 feet in the air with a large sphere set with flags of the United Nations united in the war against terror embossed on the sphere that shall burn eternally. Upon the facing's of the pyramid and in gold lettering shall there be the names of those that ahve fallen in this war against terror from every country that is fighting against the absolute rule of terrorist nations. The script that should adorn the monument should read " These heroes names written upon this stone are dead. They are at rest. They sleep in the land that was made free for them and that they made free for others, under the flag they rendered stainless, under the solemn pines, the sad hemlocks, the tearful willows, the embracing vines. They sleep beneath the shadows of the clouds careless alike of sunshine or storm, each in the windowless palace of rest." Col. R.G. Ingersoll – Wit, Wisdom and Elogance – 1887.

    Whoever this guy is that is talking about palcing a mosque on the site of The World Trade Center should be picked up by the CIA and interrogated for being a covert ops specialist sent here by the states aligned against America to spread anti-American propoganda.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:58 pm |
  12. The Myth

    Putting a mosque in the very location where Islam states the "Infidels must die" is moronic. If I was the university/school who gave this idiot a degree, I would immediately revoke it and toss this fool to the street. Talk about someone just trying to get 15 minutes of fame at ANY expense, even the death of his own citizens. When his own head is on the chopping block, he can embrace his love for Islam then.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:56 pm |
  13. Michael

    Why don't we have them build in Iraq, then we can drop a large bomb, say the size of a 747 on it. Then we can call it the "New Ground Zero"!

    July 19, 2010 at 6:56 pm |
    • Kimberly

      Now THIS is a good idea! Sorry it's just how I feel and if you don't like it, tuff!

      July 20, 2010 at 11:07 am |
  14. Andrew James

    LAnd of the free home of the brave, to oppose this violates what this country was founded on. All those who oppose it are COWARDS and the terrorists have won. We are becoming more like Iran, intolerant jackholes everyday. Losers all of you.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:55 pm |
    • cheryl

      How about we erect a statue to the speghetti monster instead?

      July 19, 2010 at 6:55 pm |
  15. cshnyny

    Another person missing the point. The point is not religious freedom. The point is location, location, location.
    Build your mosque and worhsip as you please. Just don't build it there.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:54 pm |
    • stuart

      I feel sorry for you. One of the beliefs that many early Americans fought for when our country was found, was religous freedom. Grow up!

      July 19, 2010 at 7:00 pm |
    • Moon7102

      @stuart: Read his post again. Religious freedom is NOT the point.

      July 19, 2010 at 11:00 pm |
  16. Shane

    This guy is a Wack Job !! Where is Rudy G when you need him?? New Yorkers should be screaming in the streets and kicking over trash cans !!

    July 19, 2010 at 6:52 pm |
  17. Doug

    Watch this. It will likely change your opinion.

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxFzFIDbKpg&w=640&h=360]

    July 19, 2010 at 6:52 pm |
    • Sil

      Hey Doug,

      Where is you friend reply? I want hear both sides before I make up my mind. Otherwise, I will see it as propaganda on your part.

      July 19, 2010 at 7:09 pm |
    • smarter

      Hahaha. So you know one idiot Muslim and now you're an expert on Muslim affairs? That's like me saying Pat Robertson's views apply to every Christian, or quoting a Biblical passage where it says it's ok to have slaves. You clearly didn't go to a very good college. Why don't you come back when your critical thinking has developed beyond a 3rd grade level.

      July 19, 2010 at 7:48 pm |
    • Beamer330i

      Frightening as are the Americans who can't see what is going on.

      July 19, 2010 at 8:53 pm |
    • sam

      Doug,
      I did not know about these pictures. This is quite disturbing and I wish more people could see that Muslims do not have our values and do not believe in a peaceful coexistence. Too many are naive just because they want to be PC and all but everyone needs to open their eyes. I knew some Pakistanis and Saudis in college and they called us terrorists. When you got to know them you found this out and how they hate us.

      July 20, 2010 at 10:48 am |
    • a1

      Need to get his facts Right Man! Muslims took Over Makkah(Mecca) it was Home of pagans Worshipers as u claimed but it was Built by Prophet Abraham, Pagans had took over it... so muslims who claim to be descendants of Abraham Cleaned it Again.
      and the verses of Quran you Quoted in the video do you know context of those verses ? its good way to twist things.

      There is a Huge Difference in a Good and bad Muslim, just like any other religion's followers.

      July 20, 2010 at 11:25 am |
    • a1

      as far as these pictures... you cant take them seriously until you know who made them.. who knows Some guy Name Brian or steve made them on his computer in Adobe photoshop and here you are blaming all 1.5 billion Muslims for those stupid pictures.

      July 20, 2010 at 11:28 am |
    • J. T

      The naive and foolish write about how this person's thinking is skewed because they only know one Muslim, but thier thinking is skewed because they have no basis at all for claiming they know anything about the religion other than what liberal "experts" believe. this is not about religious tolerance or freedom. This is about stopping an invasion that is purely antipodal to our philosophy of equality and freedom. Anyone, ANYONE, who disagrees is foolish and unlearned, for they have not read the writings of the Q'uran that Mandate this! I'll share a few passages:

      Well said Chris. The evidence is clearer than clear. and there are defected Muslims all over the country and the world who are trying to warn us t Islams true intent, which could not be any clearer because oppression, intolerance and terrorism is mandated in the Q'uran:

      Believers, take neither the Jews nor the Christians for your friends. (5:51)
      – Make war on them until idolatry shall cease and God's religion shall reign supreme. (8:40)
      – Fight against them until idolatry is no more and God's religion reigns supreme. (2:193)
      – The true believers fight for the cause of God, but the infidels fight for the devil. (4:76)
      – We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. (3:151)
      – I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, strike off the very tips of their fingers. (8:12)

      So, you say, what does that matter, what about all the stuff about peace? it is superseded by the chronologically later stuff about war and conquest and being nice until you have the upper hand or they show thier back so you can stick the dagger in. Muslims have no honor, no high standard of excellence, but they will do whatever they can to win. I wish all you were right when you say it is a religion of peace, but it just is not a religion of peace. I can only pray that most muslims are as moderate as you claim, but I doubt, based on leaked video tapes of islamic sermons in the middle east and central asia. You can youtube these and I hope you do so that you will see the truth face of islam, hidden by the exterior of peaceful worship and warm smiles, just do not turn your back, unless you are ready for cold steel...

      July 20, 2010 at 12:08 pm |
  18. Racom

    Why don't we make a conditional stipulation on the building of a Mosque at ground zero? A mosque can be built there if a place of worship for any non-Islamic religion is built within the walls of Mecca.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:51 pm |
  19. Jill

    As someone who lived through 9/11, lost friends and tried to cope with what happened – I am appalled by the narrow-mindedness of the comments. Our great city was built on allowing everyone a voice. To believe that everyone who prays at a mosque is a terrorist is absurd. Is every little boy who goes to church fondled – no! America is great is an awesome place. While we may not all agree, in this country we are allowed the freedom to think, pray and love without retribution.

    July 19, 2010 at 6:50 pm |
    • cheryl

      Hey Jill, come to find out 35 years later, yeah most little boys were fondled!

      July 19, 2010 at 6:56 pm |
  20. Mobama

    Put a memorial there not a Gd Mosque

    July 19, 2010 at 6:50 pm |
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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.