Storm over Berlusconi 'inferior Muslims' remarks

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Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said that Western civilization was superior to Islamic culture, compounding fears in the Middle East that America's war on terrorism will be a war on Islam.

Mr Berlusconi's remarks in Berlin "crossed the limits of reason," said Amr Moussa, secretary general of the 22–nation Arab League. "We don't believe there is a superior civilization and if he said so he's utterly mistaken."

The conservative Italian premier's comments – quickly condemned by other Italian politicians – came as the United States is trying to build a coalition with Islamic countries to stamp out terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11 suicide jet strikes on America.

Speaking at a news conference after talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr Berlusconi said, "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." He hoped the "the West will continue to conquer peoples, like it conquered Communism."

Coalition–building with Middle East nations already is difficult because many have uneasy truces with homegrown Islamic extremists that easily could be shaken – and moderate Muslims could harden their views if they feel their faith is under attack.

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, sitting next to Mr Moussa at a news conference at Arab League headquarters in Cairo Thursday, condemned Mr Berlusconi.

"It's totally contradicting the values in which we believe," said said Mr Michel, leader of a European Union mission to the Mideast trying to drum up support for an international coalition against terrorism.

President George Bush has taken care to say the enemy is terrorism not Islam, but uneasiness remains over other diplomatically uncouth remarks.

He recently apologized for saying he was on a "crusade" against terrorism – a word that harkens back to the Christian wars centuries ago to retake the holy land from Muslims. And the United States changed the name of its military operation from "Infinite Justice" to "Enduring Freedom," recognizing that in Islam "infinite justice" is considered something provided only by God.

In Bahrain, the English–language Bahrain Tribune said in a front–page editorial that Mr Berlusconi's comments "prove that the man is shallow and racist and does not merit the post he is holding."

"The world is on the brink of a crucial war against terrorism, with countries supporting one another and old foes ironing out their differences to accomplish the task. But Berlusconi chose to launch a grotesque war against Islam and Muslims," the newspaper said.

Islam, it said, always has championed human rights and dignity and promotes compassion, tolerance and knowledge.