When Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi contended that Western civilization was superior to Islamic culture, he jolted an already fragile global anti-terrorist alliance.
His ill-timed comments embarrassed Europe and the United States at a time when the Bush administration and its European allies are attempting to forge a broad coalition with Islamic nations to unite against international terrorism.
Speaking to Italian journalists at a news conference in Berlin on Wednesday, Berlusconi said: "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. This respect certainly does not exist in the Islamic countries."
The Italian prime minister added that he hoped "the West will continue to conquer peoples, like it conquered communism."
The reaction from Muslims was swift and furious.
Berlusconi's comments reinforced growing Muslim belief that the anti-terrorism campaign is a Western crusade against Islam.
The Arab League immediately labeled his statement "racist" and demanded a retraction and an apology.
"His remarks crossed the limits of reason," said Amr Moussa, secretary general of the 22-nation Arab League, in Cairo. "We don't believe there is a superior civilization, and if he said so he's utterly mistaken."
In Bahrain, a gulf nation that has been a loyal supporter of the United States and is home base to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, the English-language Bahrain Tribune said in a front page editorial that 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.
In Turkey, the traditionally anti-Western Islamist newspaper Akit called Berlusconi "a new Mussolini."
But the prime minister's spokesman defended Berlusconi, saying the leader could not be accused of insulting Islam after having "fought for the participation of moderate Arab countries in the alliance against terrorism" and called for a solution to the crisis in the Middle East.
The Italian billionaire's gaffe illustrated how difficult it has become to maintain cohesion in a coalition that includes moderate Muslim countries as well as Saudi Arabia, Russia, China and Western countries.
Berlusconi is notorious for his ham-handed remarks and for accepting Italy's neo-fascists as partners in government.
Berlusconi's comments came as President Bush sought to reassure nervous Muslims that the war against terrorists would not be a Christian campaign against Islam.
Aware of how sensitive the situation has become, Bush apologized for saying he was on a "crusade" against terrorism.
Crusades elicit memories of Christian rampages centuries ago to conquer the Holy Land from Muslims.
Meanwhile, European leaders, all with strong contingents of immigrant Muslims in their own countries, immediately distanced themselves from Berlusconi's comments on so-called Western superiority.
Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, heading a European mission to gain anti-terrorist support from Arab nations, said Berlusconi's contention "is totally contradicting the values in which we believe."
Added Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt: "Such words can be dangerous, because they can instill a feeling of humiliation at a time when we need dialogue and cooperation between the West and the world of Islam."
Verhofstadt and Belgium hold the EU's rotating presidency. He was speaking as he left for talks with Bush in Washington.
Media weighs in
Italy's media, though largely owned by mogul Berlusconi, had a field day reprinting his comments.
"Inferior Civilization," said the banner headline on the front page of the left-wing Il Manifesto. One of Italy's leading philosophers and former mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, pointed out that Western civilization owed much to Arab science, architecture, art and thought.
Former Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema described Berlusconi's remark as "a grave error" and "a racist comment."