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. RM

    Things often look pretty nice from an Ivory Tower. Funny how academia spawns such free thinking. All from the safety and security of your tenured, collegiate, scholarly office. Trying to put forth a rationale for a Mosque at ground zero under the guise of religious tolerance is an insult to the thousands of innocent lives that were lost....of all faiths and races. The explosions that tore apart World Trade and wreaked havoc on NYC were indiscriminate. The horrific premeditated events of 9/11 will never be forgotten. And at the very least, we should honor those who died and who willingly perished as a result of their heroism, not by letting Islam build a Mosque but by preventing that very act. When Islam has proven to our country it is a true religion, when it has earned the right to be viewed as peaceful, tolerant, open minded and compassionate and when it recognizes that extremist zealotry has no place in a civilized society, then I'll reconsider my opinion. I have absolutely no worries that it will ever come to be. And you sir, should be ashamed.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:52 pm |
    • Lisa Russell

      peaceful, tolerant, open minded and compassionate and when it recognizes that extremist zealotry has no place in a civilized society. Wow does that ever not describe you (well, the zealot part does).

      July 19, 2010 at 8:01 pm |
  2. Daniel

    The fear mongers and haters are trying to play this off as a purely patriot stand by using 9|11 to say that is the reason for their disdain. In reality, they don't want mosques built anywhere in America, not just NYC. Same people who try and deny gay rights and other civil liberties. America is different than the rest of the world and it should be. Freedom to be who you are and practice (or not) any religion you choose. That is what is supposed to set this country apart. Of course, too many Americans are too scared to travel abroad to other countries to notice the difference. Stop being afraid and live your lives and let other people live theirs. Plain and simple.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:50 pm |
  3. Kim

    If a community center must be built at this proposed location, to show good faith (lol), both a synagogue and Christian worship center should also be included.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:49 pm |
    • Frogist

      Hi Kim, there are already churches around the wtc site....

      July 21, 2010 at 5:55 pm |
  4. shud star

    If they build it, I hope some real Americans, not the Pu$$ies we have in alwbany and DC, tear it down or burn it. This country does not want to be Liberal even if the big cities and their trash vote that way!

    July 19, 2010 at 7:49 pm |
  5. David

    The Oblahblah regime & the USDA are racist! http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/07/19/clip-shows-usda-official-admitting-withheld-help-white-farmer/

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

      foxnews? come on now..lol what happened to your critical thinking skills?

      July 19, 2010 at 8:39 pm |
  6. indianinusa

    this guy has published racist anti-hindu stuff but this is the first time i have seen him write pro-islamic stuff. so it falls in place – another racist marxist bully who winks at islamic terrorism but targets the meek and the weak and attacks hindus.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:47 pm |
    • Mar

      Dear Mr. Indian,
      Just because you are "in usa" does not make you an American or a deciding scholar in our issues.
      Please go lick your wounds in India. Hindu culture there is great, isn't it? With its castes and honor killings? So great that it would be shocking for it to turn out that every Indian wants to be "in usa," which by the way is not "pro-Islamic" or "pro-Christian"; it is a pluralistic nation welcoming and protecting of all faiths.

      July 21, 2010 at 9:47 pm |
  7. John

    George... You are also conveniently forgetting the hundreds of Christian churches all over the world that sit on sites considered holy by the religions they were trying to convert. And we are NOT at war with Islam. We are at war with Islamic extremists. Religious extremism in any form, or from any faith, is inherently violent. And if history shows anything, when one responds to extremism WITH extremism... one only breeds more and more violence.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:47 pm |
  8. toby

    Forgot to add the Oklahoma bombings !!!

    July 19, 2010 at 7:47 pm |
  9. JP


    July 19, 2010 at 7:46 pm |
    • amyc

      According to your logic Ft. Worth, Dallas, and Arlington, TX have all been conquered by Muslims. I do know of a few mosques in these cities, but last time I checked they were here because Muslims wanted to have their own house of worship. Building a mosque has nothing to do with conquering a land. The Romans used to build their own Christian churches and "convert" everyone whenever they conquered new territory. Does that mean that every time Christians build a church that it means they have conquered that city/territory?

      July 20, 2010 at 1:10 pm |
    • Mar

      ACTUALLY (caps makes us all sound so much better, doesn't it) Islam was known in America during the time of our founding fathers; Jefferson read the Quran.

      America, don't let JP and his cronies take over OUR country.
      ^notice the use of our vs. "your" in JP's comment.

      July 21, 2010 at 9:41 pm |
  10. SoCalObserver

    Why is it this nation must show tolerance and provide freedoms to even our sworn enemies? Would we be granted likewise if we asked for such things in Iran? How about this, let the author go to Iran and write the exact opposite, demanding that Christians be allowed to build a church two blocks away from a mosque. What do you think would happend then? It's a slap in the face of all the families who lost loved ones in the attacked on 9/11. And since when do politicians get to decide on these issues? Let the people of New York have the final say. It's their city, their culture, and their tax dollars. Mayor Bloomberg should be ashamed of himself for even entertaining such a proposition.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:46 pm |
    • Fernando F.

      are you moving to Iran anytime soon? would you like to see Iran allowing churches and the US stopping mosques from being built?

      July 19, 2010 at 7:58 pm |
    • Lisa Russell

      dear SoCalObserver – there are christian churches in Iran. Perhaps if you ever opened up your brain a bit you wouldn't be so ill informed.

      July 19, 2010 at 8:13 pm |
  11. Fernando F.

    George, about replacing a churches with Mosques... what Religion are you talking about? Those 2 buildings meant the economic power of the US at the time. They represented Wall Street. The whole US came together to fight those terrorists. What did Wall Street do? They gamble peoples money and almost collapse the whole economy. I wonder who is trying to destroy America more....

    July 19, 2010 at 7:46 pm |
  12. Jaymo

    I notice T Tar is filling this comment section up with the classic "love it or leave it" or in other words "See America MY WAY or go elsewhere." Tell you what T Tar. How about you take your own advice. Either you like the fact that America is a melting pot with varying points of view and freedom of expression, religion, speech, assembly, and so on, or you don't. If you don't feel these people should have a right to speak their mind without being shouted down and threatened then maybe it is YOU who should be leaving. Makes sense to me anyway. Perhaps you should consider the history of this nation and not just your narrow view of what you wish it to be.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:45 pm |
  13. toby

    Don't want a mosque in the vicinity of WTC... I suggest you repeal the 1st Admendment.... This country is built upon the inalienable rights of all people. Muslims did not destroy the WTC, fanatical extremists did. The same type of extremists that killed Dr. George Tiller.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:45 pm |
    • Confused

      No one is saying that mosques can't be built. The argument is where they are proposing to build it. The first amendment has very little to do with it. Of course you have alot of morons on here saying some very stupid religion-backed arguments, making it seem like more of a hate-fest on Islam and Muslims. Like someone stated previously, it's a RESPECT thing.

      July 19, 2010 at 9:20 pm |
    • Frogist

      Hi Confused,
      I don't really understand what you mean by "respect" Can you define why a cultural center/ mosque would be disrespectful if placed near the wtc site?

      As far as I've read, the people who want to use that site are doing it in the name of respect. I believe they want to do the most good for themselves and the country, by showing that they are Americans who stand up with the non-muslims against terrorism. There are churches near the site, one of which, St Paul's, became a place for people to turn to for support and also to post pictures of their loved ones. This building could give moslems who lost their families and loved ones the same respite. Wouldn't it show that we are very similar people who all mourn together?

      Which would you prefer? Living in the fear that all moslems are the same as terrorists? Or knowing that muslim people are on the side of tolerance and solidarity? I would sleep much better with the second scenario...

      July 21, 2010 at 5:31 pm |
  14. Muslim guy

    End intolerance. If a mosque is stopped here, Islam will be banned. Then Synagogues an Hindu temples will be next. And Republicans will win. Don't let it happen.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:44 pm |


      July 19, 2010 at 8:40 pm |
  15. Jordan

    All I need do is quote the following:

    "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." (Edmund Burke)

    July 19, 2010 at 7:44 pm |
  16. MYTHYX

    Just another building built to glorify an imaginary being

    July 19, 2010 at 7:43 pm |
  17. downwiththebanks

    Anyone who thinks those buildings were blown up by planes needs there head checked!

    July 19, 2010 at 7:43 pm |
  18. diad

    I would like to know what are the motivations of the people who want to build this mosque at ground zero. They certainly had to know what an uproar they would cause. They certainly had to know how many people would be truly upset. Why would they want to do something that is so inflammatory? I think it's truly insensitive on their part.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:43 pm |
  19. Chris....from AL-A-BAMA

    I think that if we build the mosque, some Americans will view it as a victory, some as a defeat. The entire Muslim world, extremists and moderate Muslims alike, will view it as a victory. The mosque should not be built.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:42 pm |
  20. Not so tolerant anymore

    After serving in the military, I am not so tolerant anymore. I think building a mosque is a HORRIBLE idea. Why build for those who destroyed in the first place. Second, it won't last, people will take revenge out on it and destroy it. We need to build a beautiful park there to remember those lost. Heck I would rather it be a parking lot, as long as it's not a mosque or anything religious for that matter. Religious wars cause mass death, lets put something there that doesn't have anything to do with it. Just my opinion anyway.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:42 pm |
    • Jaymo

      Wow. So you're less tolerant of a group of people after being at war in their homeland for an extended period, and that is supposed to give your viewpoint some extra validity? Call it like it is. You're a racist. You have your reasons. You aren't "more" or "less" tolerant. You are either tolerant or intolerant. You are now intolerant of an entire group of people based on your life experience and that's all there is to it. It's nice to hear your point of view, but I don't think that fighting with somebody of a certain religion gives you extra credibility of some type. It is what it is. You had a bad experience in the military and came back filled with anger and probably some hatred and resentment for a group of people. That's too bad. I hope the military offers some help.

      July 19, 2010 at 7:50 pm |
    • Frogist

      Why are you not so tolerant anymore after serving in the military? That's very curious.

      July 21, 2010 at 4:45 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.