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. Kristy

    Would anyone be offended if a Christian church was being built near the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma Cilty? Of course not – Timothy McVeigh has just been written off as a religious zealot/nutbag and doesn't represent true Christianity. Well newsflash – the terrorists who were responsible for 9/11 are the religious zealots/nutbags of Islam who don't represent the true 'face" of Isam.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:18 pm |
  2. Jolene

    Why a mosque? Why not an interfaith spiritual center incorporating designs from all faiths as a show of solidarity? Make it a serene place where people can come to pray, reflect or just be at peace.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:17 pm |
  3. Josh

    Totally agree with the writer of the article. Muslims are part of this country, part of our fellow citizens and lost as many people during the attacks as any other religion. The worst thing America can do now is to stigmatize, make certain areas only accessible for specific religions and increase separation between people. How far is not allowing a muslim center from signs that say 'muslims not allowed'... That would be a scary place. Not in my America, home of the free!

    July 19, 2010 at 7:17 pm |
  4. Ryan

    1st: It's not at ground zero! its 2 blocks away from ground zero. 2nd: Muslims WERE also Killed in the 9/11 attacks (and no i don't mean the terrorists!) 3rd: if you value FREEDOM then we all have to be free or none of us are! By saying it cant be built there, you are taking away religious freedom for everyone. 4th: If you oppose the Muslim center do you also oppose churches built in Waco Texas, or maybe Oklahoma city since those attacks were by CHRISTIANS?
    I've said it before and ill say it again, every Muslim is not a terrorist! just like every Morman doesn't have 18 wives and every catholic isn't a child molester! I mean come on people wake up! oh and by the way no I am not a Muslim.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:16 pm |
  5. FF

    Great idea, build it, fill it with muslim extremists and then maybe someone will fly a plane into it.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:15 pm |
  6. Truth

    The mosque will serve as a monument for a 'defeated' and 'conquered' nation of Radical Islam with President 'Hussein' Obama leading the way. And we have idiots like the fool who wrote this article who really does not have a clue.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:13 pm |
    • Gary

      Truth! What a handle. This is a good idea! Go for it. The writer goes beyond ignorance and hate and revenge and comes up with a doable suggestion. Truth is we need peace compassion understanding, NOW!

      July 19, 2010 at 7:21 pm |
  7. Rob

    You blind guide. Have you not read the koran. You – the infidel must be killed. That is the belief of Islam. Their words not mine. The white man deserves what Islam is here to do. The western world if the first empire to allow in their enemy, give them benefits and protect their rights. You have been deceived by the wicked one that there is moderate and radical islam. Its a trojan horse. The moderates are here to lul you into thinking that they are peaceful. Then the radicals (disguised as moderates) will come out of the trojan horse to kill you. Have you not read their literature you who claim to be intellectual.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:13 pm |
    • smarter

      Good point!!! Make sure to shut your wife up, while you're at it: "1 Tim. 2:9-14 In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works. Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression."

      Your religion's words.

      July 19, 2010 at 8:02 pm |
    • Lola


      You may (or may not) know that the scripture you quoted is about leadership in public prayer ...guidelines for preaching for before other men. The idea is that women are to be reasonably modest, and not to go out of our way to be a distraction from the message being taught.

      This is a bit different then having to prove righteousness by covering from head to toe, or giving my husband having permission to physically punishing me, or having to settle for my husband to have 3 other wives. Those are mandates from the Qur'an. And then there's the ahadith/sunnah.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:54 am |
    • smarter

      @ Lola – again, you're missing the sarcasm. The point is any bit of scripture can be lifted up out of context to illustrate that a religion "doesn't make sense" or "is evil". You're never going to prove one religion better than the other through this asinine exercise. I just hate it when Christians think they can prove they are better than everyone else and completely overlook their own shortcomings in doing so. If you really think Islam is evil, what would you have us do, exterminate them all? The last person who tried that method on a religion was Hitler. Maybe instead we should do what Jesus really intended and try to have meaningful dialogue about how we can get along on this planet, not broad stupid comments.

      July 20, 2010 at 2:07 am |
    • amyc

      @Lola: "@Smarter

      You may (or may not) know that the scripture you quoted is about leadership in public prayer ...guidelines for preaching for before other men. The idea is that women are to be reasonably modest, and not to go out of our way to be a distraction from the message being taught."

      So in those guidelines for preaching, women are not allowed to preach, teach, or lead in prayer. Hmmm...then you say it's just to make sure we're not a "distraction for the message being taught." That is part of a mysogynistic world view which states that women are either pure, innocent virgins or we are evil seducers. The "good" girls are quiet and don't try to do anything radical (like learning or teaching). Please, you try to paint Islam as some radical affront to women, yet all the Islamic women I know where their burkha because they CHOOSE to. They don't make their daughters wear them, and they don't condemn other women of the same faith for not wearing one. That's a far cry from the Christian women I grew up around who push the view that women should submit to their husband. I may not have been literally forced to cover my head with a burkha, but it was there metaphorically. In short, don't complain about people taking verses from the Bible out of context if you are going to turn around and do the same thing to another religion. It's dishonest and disingenuous.

      July 20, 2010 at 2:11 am |
    • Rob (not the one from this post)

      Funny, Rob. You must've not read the Koran either or you might know that Jesus is the most quoted prophet in the Koran. You must've not read the old testament either because there is a lot of crazy stuff in there too that we don't follow yet we still don't have a problem with Christian terrorists (or not as much of one).

      The issue is that Islam is 600 years younger than Christianity. Think about what people were doing in the name of Christianity between 600 and 1000 years ago. Pretty violent stuff. Religion can take centuries to adapt to a secular society.

      July 20, 2010 at 11:02 am |
    • Lola


      I've had Muslim friends, classmates and coworkers ...some that I respected very much...from varying countries (some born here.) Before and after 9/11. A good friend of mine at the time was dealing with a looming arranged marriage, and before graduation started wearing her hijab on occasion. We lost touch after graduation. Then again I knew some strict hijabi classmates that were obsessed with Israel/Palestine...and almost never stopped talking about it. Semester after semester.

      I used to share your view on modesty, if you don't like it...don't look, right? However Christianity is not misogynistic because men are also held accountable for lustful thoughts and actions, and we all have authority figures to respect. Churches that I frequent are "come as you are" so there are all kinds of people in all manners of dress attending. As a woman mature in her relationship with God (and in general) the skirts get a little longer, and the cleavage is covered up....the makeup probably a little more conservative. It's the kind thing to do, and not be wrapped up in the selfishness thought of "I'll be the hottest girl in Church today." Eventually, that thoughfulness might carry into day to day life.

      Do you know how the practice of the Burka/niqab came to be? It came from a Pre-Islam arabic tribe, who liked to keep their women's skin fair. At the end of the day, they would let it all hang out. I understand wanting to get right before God, but know why you're doing it, and where the practice came from. Similar case (pagan) for current practices of Christmas trees, etc.

      Who is leaping to extermination of human beings? Not me. That is absurd. There are plenty of people who have a cursory understanding of what Christianity and Islam is about, and are spreading the ignorance far and wide. Just because you learned the five pillars in social studies, or an overview of Prophet's history in Comparative Religion does not make one an expert. I am still studying myself, and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. Being "brought up" in a religion can be so superficial. Unless one takes the time to study for themselves in depth, you put yourself at risk for being seriously misled.

      Study the Old and New Testaments inductively, in depth...because they came first. Then read the Qur'an (and sunnah.) You'll see what I mean.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
    • Lola


      Ok, some people post Scripture because they want an explanation, for better understanding.
      So you're posting with sarcasm, to confuse the matter....? Not really constructive.

      But then you're pushing your beliefs....no? Not merely explaining them.

      July 20, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
  8. Bonnie R

    I have no problem with a mosque, church, gurdwara, or temple within a few blocks of ground zero. Thos Jefferson had no problem with Islam-are we to doubt his wisdom?

    July 19, 2010 at 7:13 pm |
    • Howaboutthis

      Haven't we beaten this horse dead?

      From the Treaty of Tripoli (Ratified by the US Senate in 1797):

      Art. 11.
      As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

      July 20, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  9. sl5465

    First, let's answer the question that invariably some milk toast sissy asks at every presidential debate to wit: can't we all just get along? The answer is NO. More specifically, the jews and the arabs have fought bitterly for over a thousand years and bacause in Allah's parlance, jews are infadels, a reversal of this trend is not in the offering. Let's dispense with political correctness and euphymisms and be bluntly accurate: the Islam religion is, by its teachings, a violent religion. Islamists do not teach tolerance and view such as a weakness. As Americans, are we a tolerant lot? Yes, too much so which is why we are not feared or respected by other nations. Similarly, we Americans don't even respect our own laws because we are routinely forgiven by those sitting in judgment. ie] AIG, Citigroup, etc were forgiven by the government despite their numerous violations of the SEC regulations. We are tolerant of illegal immigration which , as Dennis Miller has stated, makes the Mexican border with California at night look like the start of the Boston Marathon. Bottom line, after watching live feed from Muslim countries of their citizens celebrating in the streets after hearing of the 9-11 attack, a Mosque within 5 miles of ground zero is an affront to every jew, moreover to every American who believes enough is enough. Oh, I could swear this Prothero guy is the very same milk toasty guy that asked Clinton in his debate with George 41 if we could all get along.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:12 pm |
  10. dly

    Anyone who wants to understand what is wrong with America need only read the comments to editorials like this one. The picture is horribly clear.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:12 pm |
  11. Steve

    Was there a mosque there prior to the bombing? No... Then no it's not appropriate to put one there now.

    Here's why; The people that committed this heinous act were doing so, for better or worse, for religious reasons. Therefore, no matter how well intentioned the people attempting to build a mosque on that cite are, they are in short marking that site as a victory of their religion over people that those terrorists felt oppose them

    It would in short become a symbol of victory of their faith and a symbol of our stupidity.

    PCness be damned, a flat outright no needs to be issued. Not because it means we're changing our "belief" in tolerance, but because it shows that we're not STUPID.

    Or to put in more directly, suppose some of us destroyed a mosque and then tried to build a pig farm on the site.

    Yeah, it's essentially that. An insult or a sign of what looks like a deliberate and calculated message being sent.

    So, it's better in this case to simply say no.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:11 pm |
  12. Greg

    Islam is a sham. Mohammad was a man who codeified the oppression of woman, taught lying was oj if it was useful and it was good to kill non believers of his made up religion. Muslims around the world have done little to police the worst of thier kind and all cheer when they murder people. I suppose the author Stephen would be all for a KKK headquarters in the same area as well a Nazi celebration center and any other hate group who wants a shelter for thier terrorists.
    He seems to be saying if we do not let the hate groups build temples to thier misguided beliefs at the or near the location of thier latest atrocities then they win. Next he'll be an advocate for child abuse.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:11 pm |
    • Gary

      Hey Greg, read the old testament and see who hates woman!

      July 19, 2010 at 7:23 pm |
  13. Dan

    ..... Build a mosque on a site, where radical muslim extremists destroyed the WTC. Well damn! If this isn't the most logical thing I've ever heard of! Hey everybody! If you place you hand into an open flame, and it burns, remember... KEEP DOING IT!

    July 19, 2010 at 7:11 pm |
  14. Staycentered

    Okay....let me get this straight, if we topple their plans for a mosque on ground zero they win, but if we build them a mosque on that very same sacred land where thousands of innocent americans were slaughtered in the name of Islam -we win??

    .....could that be Mr Bin Laden I hear laughing all the way from his dark cave in Pakistan?

    July 19, 2010 at 7:10 pm |
  15. sandra

    There are a lot of racist, narrowminded people on this site. Hello, Religious Freedom. We are not at war with Islam.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:07 pm |
  16. Shamrock

    Yeah let's just build a concentration camp right in the middle of Israel. It makes about just as much sense.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:07 pm |
  17. DK560

    I'm just out right disgusted from the amount of hate there is towards islam from people, and sadly I dont think they are "trolling" either.

    Oh and by the way im posting this from Qatar (US Airforce).

    July 19, 2010 at 7:07 pm |
  18. Jacko

    Many are unaware (or like to overlook) that many who were killed in the bombing of WTC were Americans of the Islamic faith.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:07 pm |
  19. Hoog

    "One of those core values is religious tolerance. To be sure, Americans have failed repeatedly to live up to this value."

    Yeah, because time and time again, the Muslims have shown such tolerance.

    And Rashad, give it a rest. Of all the place to not build a mosque, this is number one.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:06 pm |
  20. Samantha

    Instead, what about an educational center for religious tolerance? That would REALLY be a gigantic kick in the balls to all the terrorists. Make it an unbiased place to learn about the history of religion.

    There could be a floor for learning about the Asian religions, another floor for learning about African religions, etc. Then add a library on another floor to borrow religious texts and research about them.

    Making Ground Zero a mosque is tasteless, especially since the victims of 9/11 were killed by Islamic extremists. In fact, dedicating Ground Zero to ANY religion is tasteless, since people of all faiths and backgrounds were killed in the attack. It just feels like building a mosque on the site will give the terrorists satisfaction, thinking that they 'converted' us or something.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:04 pm |
    • Lola

      Thank you for a thoughtful suggestion that truly honors our country's ideals and the people that lost their lives in the WTC tragedy.

      July 20, 2010 at 12:38 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.