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. Bob

    Organized protests against this abomination will do no more good than protesting against the gutter religion of Islam. I wonder how long we will have to scan the news before coming across an article on how some traitorous professor took one in the head while walking to his car. No witnesses, no motives. Stories like that tend to multiply. All we can do is wonder about the motives of others. Kahira ba Allah

    July 19, 2010 at 7:30 pm |
  2. John

    Lets bomb mecca then build a church right next door. that is what these idoits are trying to do in NYC

    July 19, 2010 at 7:30 pm |
  3. SillyT

    mosque at ground zero? sure, as soon as we are allowed to build a 911 memorial at the "dome of the rock"...no problem.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:29 pm |
    • Declanmcman

      Why would we want to have the same policies as a third-world theocracy? We are Americans, and we should be proud of our ideals of religious freedom. We are supposed to be wise enough to recognize the benefits of allowing people of all religious faiths to build their churches without the government telling them which religions are "acceptable." Please don't espouse ignorant, intolerant views.

      July 19, 2010 at 9:56 pm |
  4. Bill

    While I do understand the author's point, I don't agree with it. ALL of the 9/11 terrorists were Muslim. Not a single one claimed ANY religion other than Islam. True, they were fanatics, and not indicative of the millions of Muslims around the world.

    However, the placing of an Islamic Mosque near Ground Zero would be an affront to the memory of those who died there. The victims claimed all religions – just like America. If somebody wants to build a place of worship for ALL religions near (or even at) Ground Zero – I'm all for it. But to build a place exclusive for Muslims to worship, on the spot of the worst Islamic Terrorist act to date is just plain disrespectful.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:29 pm |
  5. Hellmut

    I just can't understand why in the World there should not be a mosque near the location of the 9/11 attacks. The opposition is solely based on irrational resentments towards Islam.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:28 pm |
  6. Tony

    Something tells me if this guy had lost his wife or child in the Twins he would have a different outlook. I dont care if there were muslims in the towers when it went down, I dont care that there are muslim Americans in this country. Build the Mosque somewhere else, dont try to force feed The rest of us Americans the Muslim Ideology. If your so gung ho on the muslims why dont you make a move and pack your bags and go to the middle East and be happy, but dont expect us to sit back and listen to your banter, you make absolutely no sense what so ever.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:28 pm |
  7. Mark

    DISGUSTING FOR ANY AMERICAN to even think about a MOSQUE at the World Trade Center site! This is an insult and if/when completed I will be leaving the country. Let them have the country

    July 19, 2010 at 7:27 pm |
    • The White Knight

      I'm sorry but you're going to have to find another place to live.

      July 19, 2010 at 10:41 pm |
  8. horrified

    These comments are ridiculously ignorant. First, the proposed mosque is going to be two blocks from ground, not even within view. Has anyone seen what this "hallowed" ground is when you move away from the actual ground zero? It's crappy lunch food and discount stores. This is not some holy site, it's downtown new york and they want to build this in an old burlington coat factory.

    And then ground zero is being developed to be office buildings. Will we have to approve every type of business? If it's owned by two many muslims will that be offensive?

    And as someone else said, why don't we tear down a church ever time a christian kills people? Timothy McVeigh was christian, does that make every christian a terrorist? Throughout history christianity has been used as an pretext for violence, but somehow we're still able to separate the violence from the essence of what the religion is. If you're too lazy to do that with Islam fine, just don't pretend you know what the religion is about.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:26 pm |
  9. Gaius Baltar

    If we allow a mosque near ground zero, then it should be a PUBLIC interfaith center. Obviously there is a great deal of misinformation about islam, and a balanced religious program would help set the record straight. But on the issue of tolerance, its important that we request a similar act of faith from our muslim brothers, and they should allow us to build a public interfaith centers in areas that are almost predominately islamic, and where there is considerable misinformation about other major religions, such as worshiped by Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddists and Wiccans. Good sites for these interfaith centers would be Damascus, Cairo, Islamabad, Riyyad and Median and Mecca. Of course, a tolerant peaceful religion like islam would eagerly agree with such a plan.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:25 pm |
  10. cassie

    There is no particular reason why a mosque would be an appropriate building for that site and there are a lot of good reasons why it would cause pain to a lot of people. As I said before, a prayer/meditation garden and/or building would provide comfort to people who needed a place to grieve and it would provide a religious neutral place where both muslims injured on 9/11 AS WELL EVERYONE ELSE WHO WISHED to put their minds in a place of peace could feel welcome. Why emphasize one religion over another when people of all religions were killed and injured?

    July 19, 2010 at 7:24 pm |
  11. St.Piere

    some of Americans are dumb and spoiled ass-wipes...u r talking about f..cking mosque?? build it or not?? like that is some big thing woww..u have army bases in almost every middle eastern country... army f..cking bases people and your are talking about a mosque..imagine if you have an army base of all those countries in your back yards how would u feel...u r invading other countries killing innocent women children..telling other people what is good for them..how the f..k u know what is good for them..u either stop preaching u r country of freedom or be what u really r and that is same as those terrorist who hate freedom

    July 19, 2010 at 7:24 pm |
    • Confused

      I can tell by your extremely eloquent and educated response that we should all see things your way. I'm sure that we don't have any sort of agreement with any of the host countries that our military currently occupies. I have no doubt that we showed up one day with our beer filled coolers, foam #1 fingers and M-16's and told whoever was around that we're going to be hanging out for a while. As for the innocent women and children killing...you have absolutely no clue what you're talking about. Just because an innocent person dies (try the 3000 in the WTC) and gets publicised to death by an agenda-filled media, doesn't make us killers of the innocent.

      July 19, 2010 at 7:32 pm |
    • St.Piere

      Confused..ur name says everything...try 220,234 deaths...and i said some not all..as i said lets be real and honest...if u tell the world u r country of freedom for all then be it or stop lying..be like Iran or China...u r trying rule the world and tell other people what is good for them...maybe u should deal with ur own problems within country and then maybe just maybe u can say something about other countries..so be real or not

      July 19, 2010 at 7:54 pm |
    • Confused

      So where did you come up with that number? Sounds like you're privy to some serious information. As far as land of the free and all that....you don't allow other people to come into your house and tell you how to run it. Where else on the planet do you think we can have this conversation? There aren too many places where one, or both, of us could be persecuted just for having this talk. I can tell by your response to me, and to others, that you have a whole lot of anger tied up inside you about America and how you think it should be ran. Just out of curiosity, do you live here or are you just scrolling through CNN from somewhere else and trying to pick fights and make people angry? If that is your goal, please don't get any satisfaction from thinking that you angered me...honestly, you made me laugh a little bit. I appreciate that.

      July 19, 2010 at 8:43 pm |
    • Lee

      Ahh this is actually for Confused. I think you'll find that in Iraq we were not invited in but rather did just show up one day with our beer and guns and said 'we're taking over."

      July 19, 2010 at 9:37 pm |
    • cassie

      Good Morning,. Are we still on this issue? Can we untangle a few threads from the great ball of tangled thoughts put forth here? (l) Religious Freedom: We have religious freedom whether or not a mosque is built on said location, (2) calling people idiots when they are just trying to defend their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor is not helpful, (3) Can we have it as a given that there are good Muslims and there are bad ones, there are good Christians and there are bad ones, there are militant and even irrational persons in all religions (4) Anyone of any religion who aims to destroy our way of life here must be prevented from doing so and never honored out of some misguided sense of PC. Make your decision based on the concept of "best use" for the very valuable land in NYC, Make your decision on what would honor those who died on 9/11. Make your decision based on what place would provide all civilized people with a place of peace and meditation. We need to do a lot of meditating ,

      July 20, 2010 at 10:49 am |
  12. Bob

    I say let the mosque be built but only when Islam deletes the word "infidel" from their teaching and vocabulary and when Saudi Arabia allows the building of Christian churches and Jewish Synagogues.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:22 pm |
  13. Confused

    I find it hard to believe that someone as educated as yourself can be so idiotic. I don't understand why you would agree that building a 13 story mosque within viewing distance of ground zero is any sort of good idea. America is a tolerant country. One that allows others from all over the world to come and fend for themselves in an effort to live the dream. But we aren't so tolerant to let those that have hurt us so deeply mock us so openly. If someone came to your house and destroyed it, would you let them put a statue of themselves in your yard before you had even repaired your home? People like you are the reason that America is losing the backbone that it used to have. We are still a world power, but the gap between us and everyone else is quickly disappearing. Do you think for a second that the Americans of the 30's and 40's would even allow this conversation to continue? It would be squashed in the first 5 seconds and any politician who supported it had better find work doing something else. Enjoy the super-liberal mindset that you have and just remember that when someone hurts you or someone you love, you should just hug it out, because we can be friends no matter what.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:21 pm |
  14. Neil

    I am not from here, but from London and I feel that this country is open for everyone, its all about freedom, everything.. freedom of speech, religion etc etc. I became a citizen and am incredibly proud of that. I understand the opinion above, I understand that Islam is NOT all about terrorism, its clear there are millions of muslims that want no part of this 'jihad'.. however this mosque issue is NOT about tolerance, understanding, religious freedom – NONE of that. This issue is about RESPECT. 3000 people lost their lives there at the hand of muslim extremists, hell bent on destroying the freedom we try SO hard to protect. That inherant lack of respect is really the point here. Please, find ANY other place for your mosque, but NOT there, please. Its ground zero people, don't you understand that?

    July 19, 2010 at 7:21 pm |
  15. Average American

    Well, let's just turn the white house into one, too. And, why stop there? While we're at it, let's turn the vatican into one as well? Where does cnn get these left wing nut jobs, anyway? If they worked as hard at reporting actual news, than they do at trying to destroy America, then they wouldn't be last in the ratings. Does cnn make any money for their owners?
    I bet he also wants to put one in the land of the the Looking Glass.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:20 pm |
  16. Mewo

    People keep saying "go find a church in Saudi Arabia" or "how about I build a church in Saudi Arabia" as though it is some kind of logical argument against building the mosque. I lived in Saudi Arabia for several years and my family attended Christian services in secret the entire time. That's what you want for our country? You want to get rid of our religious freedom? By all means please do, but make sure that all religions are banned since they seem to do more harm than good.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:20 pm |
  17. Jeff

    Terribly stupid article. It would be better for America if they built a Mosque up your A$$.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:19 pm |
  18. Gary Schooley

    RIGHT ON! Finally some man goes beyond hate revenge and ignorance and presents us with a grand idea. I say YES. I am not A muslim. I am Catholic.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:19 pm |
  19. Huong

    where the F***K does this A**hole stephen get his so called bs phd degree? Stupid American like him is the faction that want to bring down America!

    July 19, 2010 at 7:19 pm |
  20. obvious

    Great suggestions on fighting islam.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:18 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.