New York Gov. David Paterson listens to a speaker during a legislative leaders budget meeting at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Wednesday, June 16, 2010.
Gov. David Paterson said Monday that he doesn't need to apologize to Muslim groups who criticized him for comments last week in which he described developers of an Islamic center and mosque planned near ground zero as peaceful and "almost westernized" Muslims.
Paterson said he sent a letter to the groups Monday, further explaining his defense of a Sufi Muslim imam's right to build the mosque and cultural center a couple of blocks from the site of the World Trade Center attacks.
In broadcast interviews last week, Paterson he had researched Sufi Muslims and they are "not like the Shiites," the second-largest branch of Muslims and the majority in Iraq. On Monday, he denied that he implied other branches are not peaceful.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council had said Paterson mischaracterized the sect and his comment suggested other Muslims are a problem. The New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called Paterson's broadcast comments "grossly misinformed" and derogatory.
Paterson said Monday that all branches of Islam are "very valid and very spiritual."
"I wasn't pointing it out because one was better and one was worse," Paterson said. "I was pointing it out simply to allow all of the free-thinking people of this country to recognize this is a very unique sect ... one that had dedicated itself to the spiritual enhancement of people."
"I don't think I have anything to apologize for," Paterson said. He said the groups "may have mistaken the intent of the remarks."
The Democrat also disagreed with statements over the weekend by the imam behind the project, who said election-year politics by a tiny, vociferous minority has stoked the controversy.
Paterson said some of the criticism is bigoted or politically motivated.
"But I do think there is some criticism coming from a valid source, which are Americans who are chagrined at the continuing controversies that surround the ground zero area," Paterson said.
As examples, he cited the terrorism trial that had been planned for lower Manhattan, an unannounced fly-over by military planes for a photo shoot, security precautions that hamper traffic in the area and the delays in rebuilding at the World Trade Center site.
"I think people have been through a lot, and I think if we are talking about tolerance, we have to understand their complaint and also those who support them who are saying maybe there is a different way to work it out," Paterson said.
There was no immediate comment from the Cordoba Initiative, which is involved in developing the Islamic center, or from Paterson's critics in the Muslim organizations.