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Friday, 28 September, 2001, 14:27 GMT 15:27 UK
Berlusconi comments dominate Italian debate
Silvio Berlusconi and Gerhard Schroeder
Mr Berlusconi (left) said that Western civilisation is superior
By Frances Kennedy in Rome

Controversial comments by the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, on the supremacy of Western civilisation, are still dominating politics and the media in Italy.

There's a big difference between (those) who carry out massacres and those who don't

Giuliano Urbani, Italian Culture Minister
Mr Berlusconi said on Wednesday that Western culture was superior to Islam because it guaranteed human rights.

His comments were condemned by Islamic nations, while European and American political leaders called them "insulting" and "tactless".

But Mr Berlusconi apologised on Friday and said his remarks had been "misinterpreted".

The prime minister also plans to meet the Saudi Arabian ambassador and other Muslim diplomats next week.

That is being seen as a sign that Mr Berlusconi and his allies realise how damaging the incident has been.

'From the heart'

"Occasionally Mr Berlusconi bursts out and speaks from the heart," said the Minister for European Affairs, Rocco Buttiglione.

He should say sorry for a planetary gaffe

Former Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema
But the Culture Minister, Giuliano Urbani, tried to defend Mr Berlusconi's distinction between Islam and the West.

"There's a big difference between [those] who carry out massacres and those who don't," Mr Urbani said.

Apology demanded

But opposition leaders have demanded an apology.

"He should say sorry for a planetary gaffe," advised the former left wing prime minister, Massimo D'Alema.

[Such comments] create embarrassment among Nato allies and irritation in the governments of moderate Islamic countries that have to cope, among many other problems, with the threat of fundamentalism

The Corriere della Sera newspaper
The leader of the Olive Tree coalition, Francesco Rutelli, said such remarks risked pushing segments of the Arab world towards extremist positions.

In an editorial titled "Words and Values", the conservative Milan daily, Corriere della Sera, said there was no excuse for verbal excesses.

They "create embarrassment among Nato allies and irritation in the governments of moderate Islamic countries that have to cope, among many other problems, with the threat of fundamentalism," it said.

"Cultural deficiency"

The left-leaning daily, La Repubblica, said Mr Berlusconi's comments were more than a political error.

The paper said they displayed a worrying "cultural deficiency" and have isolated Italy on the international stage.

Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family, dedicated two full pages to the argument.

Its headline was: "This is why the followers of Allah are so distant from the West".

It published an opinion poll saying more than 60% of Italians agreed with the prime minister.

The survey was carried out by Datamedia, a firm Mr Berlusconi frequently uses to test public opinion.

There is almost unanimous agreement that the remarks were inappropriate.

But the claim of superiority has provoked debate on cultural relativism, or putting all religions and societies on the same level.

'Most Italians agree'

A former conservative president, Francesco Cossiga, renowned for his outspoken comments, said Mr Berlusconi was right.

He claimed that most Italians agreed with him.

But he said the prime minister should have chosen more diplomatic language to avoid being "ambushed".

Many newspapers carried editorials or letters written by Islamic leaders and diplomats.

One, from an Arab League ambassador, said that the Islamic world still looked to Italy as a key diplomatic partner despite the ill-advised comments.

Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi (in Italian)
"We should not put the two civilisations on the same level"
See also:

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27 Sep 01 | Middle East
Iraq urges US restraint
26 Sep 01 | Middle East
Iranian leader: No help for US
26 Sep 01 | Middle East
EU woos Iran with coalition deal
25 Sep 01 | Middle East
Saudi Arabia warns of West-Islam split
17 Sep 01 | Americas
Bush seeks Muslim support
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