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Apology Demanded from Italy Over "Racist" Remarks on Islam

CAIRO: An angry Arab League demanded an apology from the Italian government Thursday after denouncing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s "racist" remarks suggesting Western civilization was superior to Islam. "I consider his remark as racist and by such a remark, he has crossed the limits of reasons and decency," Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa said, expressing "indignation" at what Berlusconi had reportedly said.

The remarks were considered dangerous and stirred outrage in Rome, Brussels and Cairo, at a time when the United States is trying to forge a world coalition against terrorism without provoking a clash of civilizations. "We don’t believe that there is a superior civilization and if he is thinking so, he is utterly mistaken and I believe he would have to teach himself, to read, to learn about the Muslim civilization," Mussa said.

EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten added that, "it may be worth our while in Europe remembering with a degree of appropriate humility that the Islamic world has never been responsible for a Holocaust." The Italian political opposition and the press also laid into the conservative leader for his remarks.

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, leading an EU mission to the Middle East, on Thursday denounced Berlusconi’s reported remarks as "not acceptable" and "not in line with European decisions and European values." Berluconi sparked the controversy during a briefing of Italian journalists in Berlin on Wednesday. He said the West "should be confident of the superiority of our civilization" and he urged Europe to "reconstitute itself on the basis of its Christian roots."

"Our civilization is superior to Islam," was the clear message from the Italian leader, according to journalists who attended the briefing. Critics of Berlusconi suggested he had let himself get carried away as he emerged from top-level talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on cooperation against terrorism, and with a visit upcoming to the United States.

"Inaccurate and particularly ill-timed remarks," said Piero Fassino, a top official of the former communist Party of the Democrats of the Left. "We are in a delicate phase in which a joint effort against terrorism is essential, and such comments do not help," he added. Fassino’s rival for the party leadership, Giovanni Berlinguer, said flatly: "Silvio Berlusconi uses words and arguments that no statesman worthy of his position has used in recent times."

Francesco Rutelli, head of the center-left Daisy coalition, branded his remarks as "absurd and ill-timed." Italian journalists also quoted Berlusconi as saying that, given its superiority, the West "is bound to Occidentalize and conquer new people." "It has done it with the Communist world and part of the Islamic world, but unfortunately, a part of the Islamic world is 1,400 years behind."

Western civilization, he said, "consists of a value system that has given people widespread prosperity in those countries that embrace it and guarantees respect for human rights and religion." "This respect certainly does not exist in Islamic countries," Berlusconi added. Later, during the press conference, Berlusconi said the September 11th terrorist attacks did not only affect the U.S. but also what he described as "a civilization of tolerance" which understands human rights and democratic structures "of which we are proud."

He then said: "It is a civilization which has demonstrated its supremacy," but the interpreter did not translate this into German. Italian newspapers were virulent in their criticism, with La Republica saying his remarks carried "a tinge of fundamentalism and a hint of crusade, which are extremely dangerous in the current difficult situation." "In this war [against terrorism], while weapons have not yet spoken, words carry a heavy weight," the paper said.

La Stampa warned that such language could stir up "extremists" and "play into the hands of all the bin Ladens who want to encourage a clash of civilizations." Il Manifesto said it was concerned at the presence of a homegrown Taliban-type extremism in the prime minister’s office. "If we allow them to, our Taliban can become more dangerous than those responsible for the massacres in New York and Washington," the paper said.

The daily Corriere della Sera, suggesting Berlusconi was guilty of cultural snobbery, said it "wondered about the political advisability of such remarks in the midst of a difficult crisis." Perhaps, the paper suggested, the problem lay in the absence alongside Berlusconi of Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero, a veteran figure on the international stage.

"The prime minister’s remarks, which were branded as ‘absurd’ and ‘mistaken’ by Italy’s center-left opposition, appeared to be in sharp contrast to attempts by other European leaders to distinguish between the extremism of members of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist group and the peaceful nature of most followers of Islam," said the U.K. paper The Financial Times on Wednesday.

U.S. President George W. Bush’s call for a "crusade" against evildoers early last week revived for some images of the Christian crusades against Islam, according to a CBS News report. "Some Islamic leaders say the planned U.S. retaliation over the attacks which may have killed about 7,000 people is nothing more than an undisguised crusade against Muslims," said the network. "They’ve created an atmosphere of hatred towards Muslims because they need to search for a victim, any victim...," said Lebanon-based Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.

In Brussels, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt deplored Berlusconi’s remarks on Islam and the West, saying they could have "dangerous" consequences and "feed a feeling of humiliation." "These remarks could, in a dangerous way, have consequences - rather than bringing civilizations together, they could feed a feeling of humiliation," Verhofstadt told reporters as he boarded a plane to Washington, where he is due to meet Bush. Belgium currently holds the rotating presidency of the 15-nation European Union. – Dipetik dari IslamOnline & News Agencies, 27 September 2001

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