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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. YouAreAnIdiotLibralD-bag

    You are the type of people that are making this country weak moron.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:17 pm |
  2. Maple1

    Imagine there's no heaven
    It's easy if you try
    No hell below us
    Above us only sky
    Imagine all the people
    Living for today

    Imagine there's no countries
    It isn't hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace

    You may say I'm a dreamer
    But I'm not the only one
    I hope someday you'll join us
    And the world will be as one

    – JOHN LENNON

    July 19, 2010 at 8:16 pm |
  3. John

    No (zero) mosk at ground zero period. This guy Stephen Prothero is a simple idiot with religious BS on his brain. Tolerance of intolerance is cowardace and this is what this do-gooder is all about. Hit the books Stephen and read about the terrible wake of crap that islame has let in it's path. You may just change your mind if you can get past your delusions.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:16 pm |
  4. Concerned New Yorker

    It is about respect for those who perished and the lack of respect these people have by wanting to build a mosque there. Building a mosque there is simply about symbolism for these people and a slap in the face to us and those who died. I wouldn't be one bit surprised if this whole thing was being pushed and funded by a member of the Saudi ruling family which is notorious for funding and building mosques all over the world.

    on another note, there is no reason to build any kind of religious site in that area since the whole area is composed of business, administrative buildings and schools, who i going to utilize such a facility? Walk through that area and you will see no residential areas for many many blocks.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:10 pm |
  5. Evan

    I just kind of get a kick out of seeing that, if you weigh it out, people in favor of this idea seem to know how to spell...

    July 19, 2010 at 8:05 pm |
    • John

      that's cuz the rest of us are having to work hard and fast to get by the politically correct crap that is clouding the matter. (sometimes we don't have spell checkers on the computers we happen to be using)

      July 19, 2010 at 8:26 pm |
    • the Marquis

      Indeed, Evan, there's something to that. It seems like those who have posted their reaction to the commentary with name calling or talking about "killing Muslims" as the answer can't spell correctly, use proper punctuation, or even make coherent sense in some cases. It's ironic that those people keep calling the author an "idiot." I actually think that building a mosque at that particular site would be insensitive, yet the uneducated, inarticulate fools that just keep bashing Islam or the author make me feel like I'm siding with a bunch of dumba**es with pitchforks.

      July 19, 2010 at 8:34 pm |
  6. Crusader

    How about building a monument to the crusades there instead ? If we're going to inflame the Islamic world, let's do it right. A mosque on ground zero ? What a repugnant, vapid idea – let's reward the murderers by building a monument to THEM, not the innocents they killed.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:05 pm |
  7. Marine Corps Veteran

    Absolutely insane. How incredibly insensitive and an outright insult to every TRUE AMERICAN. The United States has become so politically correct, call our freedom, "terminal freedom." Having such freedom and laws that allow this type of injustice to occur is cancerous.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:04 pm |
  8. susan in michigan

    You've got to be kidding!!! NO WAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    July 19, 2010 at 8:03 pm |
  9. mary

    Absolutely.. We were blind sided on 911 and now they are spitting on us in plain sight.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:03 pm |
    • Jaymo

      By Osama Bin Laden... NOT by Islam. If they wanted to build a statue to Osama then by all means, throw a hissy fit. But this is ridiculous. Is New York a holy place for Christians now? I believe the attack was carried out by members of Al Qaeda on our symbols of capitalism.

      July 19, 2010 at 8:09 pm |
    • JOJO

      May i ask an obvious question? If 9/11 never happened, would there be any interest in building a mosque on Park Place, just two short blocks from Vesy St and the WTC complex? My intuition says no, so why should we build a mosque at this spot at this point in time? Burlington Coat Factory was a flop, i'd rather see an Abercrombie & Fitch or Hollister megastore retail their clothing lines at this site..Mayor Bloomberg is a supporter for building a mosque, so my proposal is to satisfy him and all parties, and have a mosque built within City Hall Park, close to the WTC and closer to the mayor's office...he may want to visit the Center for Islamic studies during lunch break and study up on Judeo-Christian-Islam ideology .. Imam Bloomberg for President...it's coming folks..just wait and see.

      July 19, 2010 at 8:44 pm |
  10. wilypagan

    Not at war with Islam, only at war with "extremists"? "Extremists" like the current Prime Minisiter of Turkey perhaps? Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Prime Minister and a “reformed, moderate Muslim,” has earlier stated that “the mosques are our barracks, the minarets our bayonets, the domes our helmets, and the believers our soldiers.” Get real. We need to protect ourselves from Islamofascism.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:03 pm |
  11. Bob

    If they build one there at least I will die of old age prior. THANK YOU GOD! That sound you hear is america kissing the rear of everyone but AMERICANS. Make that LEGAL Americans. Press 4 for English.

    July 19, 2010 at 8:03 pm |
  12. Ron

    You are obviously out of your mind, Muhammed Steven Prothero! That is exactly what the Muslims want. This editorial of yours has crossed the line. Our religions mean nothing to Islamists. They criticize all the other religions and want nothing more than to kill all of us who disagree with them. Reminds me of the Trojan horse. On the other hand, they are not willing to listen to our religion or our beliefs. It is really one sided. One fact remains; you are a COMPLETE IDIOT! I say NO to a Mosque in NY. What an insult you have made to all Americans and especially to the victims and families of the victims of 911. You should keep your religious views in your pocket.!

    July 19, 2010 at 8:02 pm |
  13. mary

    No.. Where is the sensitivity to the people who lost loved ones on 911? No one is saying not to build one, just use some sensitivity about where it is built. No one is trying to stop religious expression,
    Yet the people who call the people who say no to this, 'fear mongers" and "haters"..Are really saying "get over it, cause we don't really give da,, how you feel".. If they did..This spot would have never been chosen and we wouldn't even be discussing this right now..It's a push to over ride what those hurt most feel..Plain and simple. It speaks volumes as to the real reason this is being built, there on that spot.. As a sign of having conquered..Just what most people 'know' to be true.

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

    Mark, I can't think of a better thing to do. Yes, please leave the country. America is supposed to stand for freedom (I think it is even somewhere in the anthem). Yet you, and others in the stream, seem to think that means only freedom if you are a white christian.
    America used to be a country that was to be looked up to and admired. Not so any longer. It is now a country of hypocrisy – where 'freedom' is talked about, but that is all it is, talk. Freedom of speech? Nope – only if you agree with me. Oh, and it is ok to wiretap anyone,any time. Miranda rights? Nah, don't think those are needed either. Freedom of religion. Definitely not.
    I can't think of a better place to build a mosque. Maybe put in a church, a synagog, and a temple as well.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:58 pm |
  15. James

    "Non-believers" of Islam can't even GO to Mecca and Medina. Do unto others as they do unto you. A people should know when they're being conquered. We in the west better wake up because our virtues are being used against us. An individual, group, people, or religion that promotes itself as a religion of acceptance and peace out of one side of their mouth while simultaneously excluding all others is an active contradiction. You are being conquered and the sheep are allowing the wolves into the pasture.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:58 pm |
  16. Jay

    I think about the 7 million muslim american and can't help but think that as an American if you need to sub-classify yourself as anything other than just American, perhaps you should not be an American at all? I think a large number of people seem to forget that being an an American is singular, and having tolerance for other cultures doesn't negate the fact that being an American means you are part of something larger. To be clear, if you feel you are: cuban-american, mexican-american, african-american, german-american, irish-american, polish-american, or any other sub culture feel completely free to leave the country or just go kill yourself.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:57 pm |
    • Lisa Russell

      Wow Jay. Guessing you are a white-american eh?

      July 19, 2010 at 8:03 pm |
    • St.Piere

      Jay...what is an American? what is a history of America? when you discover that then we can talk till then go suck some africanamerican dong while u r eathing american italiann food and drinking american-irishi whiskey

      July 19, 2010 at 8:10 pm |
  17. FFFF

    Why do people keep posting Muslims died on 9-11 also? Who cares? Muslims haved never had a problem with Killing their own. It seems baseless not to mention irrelevant. If it is built I hope it is destroyed.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
    • amyc

      Thank you for your very thoughtful comment about how it's ok when one group of people dies but not when another group of people dies. Thank you for exposing yourself as a racist from the beginning and not dancing around it. The information you provided will help everybody to know that they should just ignore you.

      July 20, 2010 at 1:17 pm |
  18. RyanE

    I'm Chinese-American and not too long ago I and some of friends attended the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. We were confronted by some people who said that we didn't belong there. We all served in the U.S. military and we tried to explain to them we came to honor fellow veterans. That didn't matter to them–they only cared about the color of our skin. They didn't bother to think we were of another Asian nationality not responsible for the attack on the Pacific Fleet on December 7, 1941. We were grouped into one and all I can explain for their discriminatory behavior toward us is that there is so much blind hatred today. I see it in some of the messages being posted. That is a greater tragedy than 9/11.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
    • Frogist

      Thank you for your service RyanE and your comment. I feel ashamed for your treatment. You deserve better, and so does this country.

      July 21, 2010 at 6:10 pm |
  19. JeffC

    Allowing the mosque on this site, 2 blocks away from ground zero, is a huge victory for the extremists; and they will celebrate in the streets all over the world when it is completed. Why this author misses this incredibly signifcant point, I cannot fathom. It is more of this liberal degredation of America that continues to rear its ugly head "everything is cool as long as it is not Christian or American".

    July 19, 2010 at 7:54 pm |
  20. Sunny

    Is this guy an idiot or what? If he really is a professor he should be immediately fired.
    Islam is a religion that preaches violence, hatred and abuse of women, just read the quran u fool.
    Quran, preaches hatred and violence against Christians, Jews, hindus, buddist and all religion, book say to kill everyone who is not a Muslim and refuses to convert.
    This guy is bribed by the Muslims.
    At the site where they want mosque, barrels of pig blood should be poured so as to send the Muslims to he'll.

    July 19, 2010 at 7:53 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.