Europe disowns Berlusconi for attack on Islam

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Western leaders rounded on Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, yesterday after he undermined the unity of the coalition against terrorism by asserting the superiority of Western civilisation over Islam.

European politicians publicly disowned Mr Berlusconi's apparent prediction of a clash of civilisations while much of the Arab world reacted with anger. Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the 22-nation Arab League, said the Italian Prime Minister had "crossed the limits of reason," adding: "We don't believe there is a superior civilisation and, if he said so, he's utterly mistaken."

In Tehran, Mohammad Khatami, the reformist Iranian President, warned of "evil hands" trying to use the deadly attacks on the United States to create a clash of civilisations.

America and its European allies have been at pains to stress that the coalition they are assembling is designed to combat terrorism and does not equate the actions of fanatics with the views of a wider Muslim world. Contradicting this carefully co-ordinated message, Mr Berlusconi argued that Western democracies observed superior standards to those of Muslim countries. After talks in Berlin with Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, on Wednesday, Mr Berlusconi said: "We must be aware of the superiority of our civilisation, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and – in contrast with Islamic countries – respect for religious and political rights."

He was then quoted as comparing Islamic terrorism to the anti-globalisation movement, saying that, while the former had tried to provoke a violent reaction from the West, the latter had tried to make it feel guilty for its economic policy. Mr Berlusconi's spokesman said later the words had been taken out of context.

While President George Bush has been criticised for a verbal slip in calling the war against terror a "crusade", Mr Berlusconi parted company with the West's co-ordinated political script. European leaders are adamant they are not about to embark on a clash of civilisations, and have criticised him with a ferocity rarely seen in diplomatic circles.

Guy Verhofstadt, the Prime Minister of Belgium. which holds the EU presidency, said: "These remarks could, in a dangerous way, have consequences. I can hardly believe that the Italian Prime Minister made such statements."

Chris Patten, the European commissioner for external relations, said: "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."

Although most reaction in the Arab world was indignant, Ahmed al-Baghdadi, the head of political science at Kuwait University, said that Mr Berlusconi's remarks were ill-timed but "relatively correct". While acknowledging that the Koran's principles were good, he said that Islamic civilisation had not encouraged freedoms. "We are carrying a heritage that we haven't been able to discard," said Mr al-Baghdadi, who specialises in Islamic political thought. "We have no freedom of thought or civil freedoms."