Breaking ranks with allies reaching out to the
Muslim world, Italian Prime Minister Silvio
Berlusconi on Wednesday said Western civilization
is superior to Islam. He also said he hopes the West
conquers Islamic civilization.
The conservative billionaire's remarks were instantly
disavowed by more moderate politicians in Italy,
who called them both ill-timed and offensive.
Berlusconi made the remarks, which were
broadcast on Italian television, after talks in Berlin
with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and
Russian President Vladimir Putin on the crisis
sparked by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the
He told a news conference, "We must be aware of
the superiority of our civilization, a system that has
guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and
-- in contrast with Islamic countries -- respect for
religious and political rights, a system that has as its
values understandings of diversity and tolerance."
He also claimed Western civilization is superior
because it "has at its core, as its greatest value,
freedom, which is not the heritage of Islamic
Berlusconi went on to say that he trusts "the West
will continue to conquer peoples, like it conquered
Communism," even if it means a confrontation with
"another civilization, the Islamic one, stuck where it
was 1,400 years ago."
His comments came as many Western leaders were
taking pains to avoid antagonizing the Muslim world
and forge a worldwide coalition against terrorism.
President Bush, for example, met Wednesday with
American Sikhs and Muslims at the White House
and issued yet another appeal for religious
The reaction in Italy to Berlusconi's comments was
swift and sharp. They were denounced by a number
of Italian politicians as irresponsible and
Piero Fassino, a prominent member of the
center-left opposition, called the comment
"mistaken and, above all, inopportune."
"We're in a very delicate phase in the life of the
planet. We need to unite the world against
terrorism. And one of the conditions is to unite
religions, to have civilizations and cultures
cooperate," said Fassino.
An outspoken businessman, Berlusconi has only
limited foreign policy experience, despite a brief,
previous turn as prime minister in 1994. The allies in
his conservative coalition include the often
xenophobic Northern League and the once
neo-fascist National Alliance.
Italy is home to at least 500,000 Muslims, many of
them immigrants from North Africa.
The prime minister plans to visit Washington soon
for talks with Bush on the terrorism crisis. A
member of NATO, Italy has pledged its full
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