Berlusconi to Meet Muslim Envoys to Explain Gaffe

ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's most powerful man and one of its most self-assured, has rarely had to say ``I'm sorry'' in his life.

But he was preparing to do just that -- or at least come close to it -- Tuesday evening when he meets Arab and Islamic ambassadors to try to make amends for asserting last week Western civilization was superior to Islam.

It was a gaffe that resonated around the world.

In the light of Washington's cautious attempts to build an international coalition to fight terrorism following the suicide attacks on the United States last month, Berlusconi's comments stunned leaders both in the West and among Islamic nations.

Billionaire Berlusconi said in Germany last week the West should be aware of ``the superiority'' of its civilization, saying it created wealth and guaranteed respect for human rights.

``We should be conscious of the superiority of our civilization, which 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,'' he said.

``This respect certainly does not exist in the Islamic countries,'' he added at the time.

Berlusconi, who heads a center-right government, said the West ``will continue to conquer peoples, like it conquered Communism,'' and suggested Islamic civilization was stuck in the distant past.

Like a chorus member singing off key at the opera, he was whistled down from Washington to Wellington.

Egypt and Lebanon called for a clarification while European Union politicians expressed shock that the Italian leader had expressed apparently inflammatory opinions at such a delicate moment for relations between the West and Muslim world.


In a hard-hitting editorial, The Washington Post accused Berlusconi of ``dangerous rantings.''

``Particularly in a climate in which reprisal attacks against Arabs and Muslims -- and people taken for Arabs and Muslims -- are disgustingly common, such remarks are simply unacceptable,'' the Washington Post said. ``All the more so from a head of government of a major American ally.''

Berlusconi, ever combative, called the affair ``an artificial controversy'' based on nothing and ``fed by irresponsible comments from the opposition.''

Berlusconi said his words had been taken out of context.

The Washington Post editorial agreed with that part of his explanation, saying: ``He's right. They are from a different century.''

Since the attacks on the United States, Berlusconi and his cabinet have given the Americans a virtual blank check on any eventual response.

Italy, which is dotted with U.S. and NATO bases, has said it would join an anti-terror coalition, saying it was ready to deploy troops and aircraft in response to the attacks.

To mend fences, Berlusconi is due to meet Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abulaziz, the Saudi Arabian envoy and dean of Arab ambassadors in Italy and other Islamic envoys. The ambassador is also president of the Islamic cultural center in Rome.

In recent years, Islam has overtaken Judaism as Italy's second-largest religion after Roman Catholicism as immigrants, particularly from North Africa and Asia, have flooded into the country seeking a better life.