September 26, 2001
Berlusconi Comments Cause Stir
ROME (AP) -- 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 United States.
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 culture."
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 tolerance.
The reaction in Italy to Berlusconi's comments was swift and sharp. They were denounced by a number of Italian politicians as irresponsible and inflammatory.
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 cooperation.