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. Bushpig61

    Why don't liberal pansy democrats just bend over, grab their ankles, and take a hard one deep in the stink pipe? Grow some balz, people! You're a disgrace to anyone who ever fought for what's right. Probably got beaten up on the playground, too, huh? Maybe your daddy left when you were young, raised by your mama and 4 sisters? They dressed you up in their clothes? Am I close?

    July 19, 2010 at 7:41 pm |
  2. LukesCorner.ning.com

    This is the problem with certain liberals including the author of this post,, instead of bringing up the real concern that while most Americans arent at war with Islam...the jihadi mindstate has corrupted so many moderate Muslims to either join their cause physically or empathize with them from inside their homes and both are equally dangerous to America as a whole.

    The author paints this picture often portrayed by the liberal media in which if your opposed to the mosque your automatically racist and against Islam as a whole and want to see people put in camps....did he really just say that?

    So after they build this mosque ,because its basically certain at this point unfortunately, and we immediately see a new Al-Qaeda video claiming victory in Islamifying the same city they performed a terrorist act on,, and then have that accompanied with scenes of "everyday or so-called Moderate' Muslims dancing in the street in celebration that here's anoter controversial proposal by them that got shoved down some country's throat. Im by no means racist against anyone's religion and dont have a problem with the mosque plan,, only its whereabouts are the problem.

    There's no way to really get an honest poll because so many people remain quiet in fear of branded something unflattering by mainstream media but it doesnt take a rocket scientist to predict the vast majority of people in any country wouldnt want something so symbolic and sensitive to be erected at the scene of a past nightmare.

    I never been one for political labels but seeing so many head-scratchers come out of Liberals mouths begins to make your stomach turn.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:41 pm |
  3. CSnord

    We are not at war with Islam or any other religion, however, Islam is at war with the rest of the world and has been for centuries. Regardless of what Muslims and religious scholars tell us, the actions of Muslims around the world from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia make it abundantly clear that the Muslim position is: Either you join us, or we will kill you. We are given the option of agreeing TOTALY with the Muslims, or face extinction. They are allowing no middle ground. Isalm is a very tolerant religion as long as everyone behaves reasonably and does everything the way of Isalm.

    To all you defenders of Islam: I will believe you mean me no harm when you stop calling me "infidel" and Muslims stop blowing up cars and building and murdering civilians around the world. Then, and only then, will you have any credibility.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:40 pm |
  4. Jan

    No way.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:40 pm |
  5. jaxx

    This is neither a mosque nor is on the ground zero site. It is a cultural center built near ground zero. All in all, I wish they would have built it square on the head of the ground zero site. Freedom of religion trumps all goon's view on what can or can not be built where. Screw they Nazi looney anti American right wing tea trash. This mosque or cultural center or whatever it is IS going up!

    July 19, 2010 at 7:39 pm |
  6. highlander57

    I do not think a mosque is a good idea at ground zero. My words do NOT come from prejudice, but rather principle. I fully realize that muslims are like anyone else, some good, some bad, BUT I feel that a mosque at ground zero mocks what happened there. Radical people of that religious faith attacked the world trade center on American soil, and I believe that for a mosque to be built on Ground Zero is not in good taste. Build a Christian place of worship and convert the muslims to christianity is what I think should happen.
    And while we are at it check the immigration papers of everyone in America, and enforce our nation's immigration laws!!!! Secure our U.S. Borders!!!!! DOWN WITH ALL AMNESTIES AND HANDOUTS FOR ILLEGAL ALIENS!!!!!! Illegal aliens are hurting the U.S. and our people!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    My Two Cents
    Clan of the Blue Lion

    July 19, 2010 at 7:37 pm |
    • amyc

      "Build a Christian place of worship and convert the muslims to christianity is what I think should happen."
      Until you got to that line, I thought you might just be a nice person who personally thought building a mosque would be in bad taste, but I can see you are just as intolerant and prejudiced as all the others commenting here. You cannot say your comments don't come from prejudice and then in the next line say they should all be converted. That's just disrespectful and intolerant.

      July 20, 2010 at 2:27 am |
  7. David

    Legal, GOD fearing American citizens........It's time! What is your choice to continue to be a DOOR MAT which in political terms is called TOLERANCE! Or will you stand up with Courage and take your Country back?

    July 19, 2010 at 7:37 pm |
    • NY-David

      I'm curious how you feel about the Americans who are Muslims?

      July 20, 2010 at 11:36 am |
  8. Jimbo1

    What a stupid idea!!!!

    July 19, 2010 at 7:37 pm |
  9. Becky

    Doug, I liked your video. I'm wondering if no one remembers all the Muslim people in their respective Muslim countries dancing, laughing and holding up their anti-American signs after they had just learned what had happened on 9/11? Name calling doesn't bother me so I am saying no to their mosque. They say one thing and do another. Land of the free doesn't mean we have to be stupid and bury our heads in the sand trying to be so lenient. It was because we didn't think this would ever happen to us that we let it.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:36 pm |
  10. new yorker

    I live in Manhattan and I am yet to see one person oppose this. NYC is an international city and very diverse an tolerant. These Southern rednecks can't stop out tolerance. Palin lives in Alaska and knows nothing about real America, so why does she think she has an opinion? This is a free country, with NYC leading the tolerance in the country, an anyone can build a place to worship if they want. Are we becoming the Nazis or are we listening too much to tea party and Republicans? Blacks and Jews overwhelmingly support this because they were discriminated against and they know that if the racists win here, they will repeat it on another group. Say not to redneck racism.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:35 pm |
    • shud star

      So your New York City point of view is how we should be, I live in New York State. So I am no redneck but I am also not liberal, Just look @ all the great society's the world has know. They all fell when they went Liberal!!!!

      July 19, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
    • Concerned New Yorker

      Well Mr. Manhattan
      you and the rest of the gutless yuppies don't speak for the rest of us!

      July 19, 2010 at 8:17 pm |
  11. once indifferent, now...

    Maybe a religious diversity pavillion instead- one that recognizes all religions/spiritual beliefs. There were people from all walks of life and belief structures who died in the terror attacks on 9/11. A mosque is not the answer, but neither is ridiculing a religion either.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:35 pm |
  12. sylvester

    Sounds fair, why not also erect a shrine to Emperor Hirohito next to the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor while we are at it.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:35 pm |
  13. Mark McKee

    Oh my God!!! Next they'll want to build a Christian Church near the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. After all those people were innocently killed, it's disrespectful to allow these Christian terrorists to build chuches.

    Doesn't that sound silly. Home of the brave, my a$$...

    July 19, 2010 at 7:35 pm |
  14. Brandon

    What world do you live in Chuck? Just about everything you said was absurdly inaccurate.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:34 pm |
  15. sandra

    it sounds like the racist folks on this site will bomb the mosque after it's built. Who's the terrorist now? Get over yourselves people. The U.S putting bible quotes on guns was wrong. Building a mosque is not.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:33 pm |
  16. Mobius007

    Like most of you, the idea of a mosque at ground zero makes me sick. The problem is, the US is all about religious freedom, and this issue has the potential to go all the way to the Supreme court (with the world watching)... Unfortunately, given this scenario, the mosque ultimately will get built.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:33 pm |
  17. Cindy M

    I say we do away with all religions.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:32 pm |
  18. Judith

    This is not about your personal mantra, nor about your religion. This is about the freedoms that we are promised as citizens of this nation. If upstanding Muslim citizens of this nation want to build a mosque near ground zero, so long as they have followed the laws of our nation (including the zoning laws for that area of New York) then they have every right to do so. Perhaps it is a good idea, perhaps it is a bad one (I personally wouldn't do it, but that isn't the point here) and they will have my support in those rights. If it is not so, then the next time YOU want to build something in this nation, be it gas station, church, grocery store, school, casino or whatever, and you are a fine upstanding citizen, and are obeying all the laws of this nation, then you should EXPECT to be denied.
    We cannot have some rights available for one group and then take away some of their rights based on their religion, creed or race. What backwater century are you "anti-mosque near ground zero" from? Please, go back to the unenlightened, pre-Bill of Rights slum that you dragged yourselves out of and stay there. Anyone who tries to take away the rights of the citizens of this nation has no place here. Again, I personally may not think building a mosque on that particular site is a good idea, and it is my right to think so. It is, however, their right to build it so long as they are upholding the laws of country, state and city. So, in this decision, which side are you on? The one that follows the law, and the Bill of Rights, or the one that would bring down their destruction?

    July 19, 2010 at 7:32 pm |
    • dd

      Just to clarify, its an interfaith cultural center for everyone. There is a little bit of space available for prayer, because muslims are required to pray 5 times a day. Like hospitals and other places have a chapel.

      July 19, 2010 at 7:56 pm |
  19. 007

    After the mosque is built this wacko guy will want a statue of Mohammed Atta placed next to it ! Where does it all end?

    July 19, 2010 at 7:32 pm |
  20. ryan

    This is so insulting it boggles my mind. Muslims get 10 different shades of butthurt over the smallest transgressions, and threaten death over cartoons, yet we are supposed to see this as something other than a blatant insult? You know islam has a history of building mosques on conquered land? what a desecration to build a towering tribute to the delusional religious monsters who murdered 3000 of our citizens, and on their very graves no less. stop trying to be so tolerant and grow a freaking spine america!

    July 19, 2010 at 7:30 pm |
    • Moloko Vellocet

      Well said, Ryan, I agree with you totally!

      July 19, 2010 at 11:09 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.