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The Berlusconi Affair

By now, most people should have heard of the notorious incident in which the prime minister of Italy unleashed a crude and sudden offensive on Islam (If you are amongst the 53 Pygmies that missed it, pay added attention!). Mr. Silvio Berlusconi, perhaps in naive anticipation of applause from his German hosts, claimed during a press conference in Berlin that the Western civilization was superior to the Islamic one. Berlusconi was quoted as saying , "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, a system that has as its value understanding of diversity and tolerance".

No one was impressed.

On the contrary, these statements which circulated throughout world newspapers like wildfire, rightfully drew swift and bitter condemnation by almost everyone; from the United States and the European Union, to the Arab League and every international organization with an acronym. Western and Muslim Politicians questioned his professionalism, and whether he had the right credentials to lead a modern nation. In the press, he was compared to Mussolini by some; to Bin Laden by others. Berlusconi, almost overnight, found himself the most unpopular man in international politics. As would be expected, he quickly recanted his views and offered a public apology.

Is this the happy end of the Berlusconi affair? To most politicians perhaps, but to the eager students of history, it is a lesson in the making. Let it be clear to all that there are many Berlusconi's lurking about, and they deserve some of our undivided attention. In addressing this phenomenon, and in an attempt to glean something positive from this sorry saga, let us reflect on some basic questions and facts pertinent to it.

  • 1. Why did Berlusconi make these statements in the first place?
  • 2. Why did the Western media and political establishments distance themselves from his statements, and seek to appease Muslim public opinion?
  • 3. Why did Berlusconi later publicly renounce his views and engage in singing the praises of Islamic civilization?
  • 4. Setting political and religious sensitivities aside, to what extent are Berlusconi's statements true?

These are all questions that we should seek to answer, rather than scurrying to sweep the whole affair under the carpet and then burying our heads in the sand, convincing ourselves that everything is fantastic now that Silvio has said he is sorry.

Let's begin with the first question: [1] why did Berlusconi make these statements in the first place? The answer is quite simple: Berlusconi made these statements because he believes in them. Berlusconi did not express himself in as little as one or two words that his apologetics could claim were taken out of context or misinterpreted. He used lengthy, complete, and logical sentences, leaving no doubt as to the point he was trying to make. Attempting to convince us that his words were mistranslated or misinterpreted insults our intelligence and adds salt to our injury. Moreover, before Berlusconi had become fully aware of the international fury he had ignited, he had already further established his intentions through subsequent commentaries published in the Italian press. These commentaries sought to provide evidence to his earlier statements rather than downplay them, cementing his anti-Islamic views in no uncertain words. There is something else we must consider. Berlusconi is one of Italy's shrewdest and most successful public figures in contemporary Italy. Italy’s richest man, the multi-Billionaire sits atop a multi-faceted empire that includes 3 of Italy's 5 television stations; television stations in Germany, Spain, and France; several popular European newspapers and magazines; the legendary AC Milan football club; and construction, banking, and insurance enterprises. Politically, he has had an equally successful career that included the opposition leadership in parliament, and that has culminated in his current position as premiere of Italy with a second acquisition of the prime ministership. How then is a man of such impressive credentials capable of so grossly misrepresenting his views? He did not get to where he is on poor communication skills. It simply doesn't fly. Everything Berlusconi said on Islam, not withstanding his later apology and praise of Islam, he believes in and meant to say.

If it is established that Berlusconi meant every word he said, and that he really does harbor anti-Islamic views, the second question then becomes: [2] why did he later renounce these views and engage in singing the praises of Islamic civilization? Berlusconi did so for primarily selfish reasons. He wanted to protect his public image in Italy and abroad, and restore popularity with the powerful of the world that he had offended, as a bid to secure his political holdings. When Berlusconi claims that he "did not mean to offend his Muslim friends", he is not being very honest; the truth is that he did not mean (and did not expect for that matter) to offend his powerful Western allies, mainly the US and the EU. He also did not mean to underscore his political image. When, to his surprise and disappointment, he was to find out that he had done just that, and when it dawned upon his excellency that the nature of US and EU reactions were contrary to what he had anticipated, he back stepped. His subsequent singing of the praises of Islam was only an attempt to jump on the bandwagon and to forever erase the image of the black sheep others were beginning to draw for him. Berlusconi panicked at the thought of being cast as Europe's new Haider. Accordingly, Muslims should not "appreciate" Berlusconi's praise of Islam as it is neither heartfelt nor mindful. Had he been free to spew his heart and mind out, Muslims would have been confronted with a very different Berlusconi; one who would have pioneered, with such backward rhetoric reminiscent of Fascist Europe, widening the rift between the Western and Muslim worlds. (Indeed, Berlusconi's political tolerance and even frequent cooperation with Italy's neo-Fascists is an ongoing issue that is troubling to many Italians). Muslims should simply not be appeased by a selfish apologetic's attempt to salvage his own political career. Had his apology been heartfelt, and had he made an authentic and heartfelt proclamation emphasizing that there is no culture superior to the other, his prior statements should then have been forgiven and the man embraced in friendship. But to be compelled to publicly conform to the healthy view of the majority while still privately harboring ill feelings of superiority and hatred, yet still expect Muslim forgiveness and a resumption of normal relations is nothing short of audacious.

This leads us to a third question, or rather, a set of questions. [3] Why did the Western media and political establishments distance themselves from Berlusconi's statements, and seek to appease Muslim public opinion? Is the West truly warming up to Muslims? Should Muslims rejoice at the level of acceptance and popularity Islam has achieved in the West? Unfortunately, things are not as rosy as they appear. The primary reason that led the West to swiftly and uncompromisingly denounce Berlusconi's statements is strictly a political one. As the whole civilized world struggles to iron out its differences in the face of the common threat of terrorism, Berlusconi's statements could not have come at a worse time. They were regarded by the Western initiative as a serious threat to the cohesion of the international coalition the US was struggling to build and sustain. The Western establishments were not so much worried about Berlusconi's statements being untrue, inappropriate, or shallow. His statements worried them only in their capacity to compromise the Muslim nation's cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Many of the protesting voices did not bother to hide that fact, explicitly grumbling that such statements were bad because they could weaken the coalition with the Msulims. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that there were certain vociferous others amongst the Western protestors who were angered for all the right reasons. They were politicians, famous scholars, and other popular figures who objected to Berlusconi's statements, not because they wanted Muslims to continue assisting in the war against terrorism, but because they understood the true progressive nature of Islam, and because they recognized and appreciated the countless positive contributions Muslims have made throughout history. But for the great majority, including the US government, US newspapers, and the EU, the protest was fuelled by selfish political reasons no less than was Berlusconi's subsequent apology. There was also a noticeable segment in the West that outrightly supported Berlusconi's statements, or at least wondered why others were objecting to them.

This leads us to the fourth and final question. [4] Setting political and religious sensitivities aside, to what extent are Berlusconi's statements true? The answer is we don't know. We never will. Berlusconi's claims are so beyond the realm of scientific reason that they cannot even be tested for truth or falsehood. How can one seek to prove through scientific means that one culture is superior to the other? Western apologetics argue that Muslim women are oppressed. Yet Muslim women themselves deny they are oppressed and feel that it is the Western woman who is oppressed by virtue of the social pressures on her, levied by Western cultural standards, to look a certain way, act a certain way, maintain a certain weight, and to exploit her own sexuality. They see their own modest lifestyles as a shunning of this male imposed lifestyle of psychological pressure and unbearable stress. Berlusconi obviously is looking through a very one dimensional glass piece when he formulates his cultural supremacist views.

Even setting all that aside for a moment, we are confronted with yet another logical fallacy: the attribution of the Muslim world's backwardness to Islam. Sure, there is what can be universally described as backwardness in the Muslim world. Whether economic hardship, illiteracy, disease, superstitions, or disturbing cultural practices, the Muslim world has its share of backwardness. But firstly, who in the right mind can draw a connection between this backwardness and Islam. Islam in its authentic form is not being practiced as a social or political governing system by any of the nations in the Muslim word, and certainly less so amongst the factions were backwardness is most prevalent. The Muslim world is referred to as such simply because many of its inhabitants are nominal Muslims by birth, but there certainly is not an Islamic world, or even an Islamic nation, anywhere on the planet; one where the Islamic legal system and moral teachings prescribed in the Koran prevails. If anything, upon careful scrutiny of the so-called Muslim world, it becomes evident that there is a direct relationship between the absence of authentic Islamic practice and the presence of backwardness. This is as true in the dimension of time as it is in the dimension of space. In other words, looking back through history, the Muslim world's level of advancement was forever a function of its adhesion to an Islamic code of living, and its backwardness a function of its negligence of that code. So it is not religion, but perhaps the backward interpretation of religion, in addition to many other complex factors, that lead to backwardness - too many to recount here. They include, but are not limited to, European colonialism, which involved the development of Western society on the natural and human resources of the third world - an undeniable fact. This is an ironic and bemusing twist to the claims of Berlusconi that Western civilization is superior.

More logical fallacies to the “Berlusconesque” rhetoric ensues; namely, his attempt to confine Islam to a limited geographical area. Islam is a universal faith practiced by all races and nationalities. There are many Western Muslims, were do they fit in Berlusconi's scheme of cultural Star Wars? For all intents and purposes, I am an American, Western Muslim. Should I be expected to have a split personality? How about the Egyptian Copts? Are they of the Western or Muslim civilizations? They seem to fit in neither category of Berlusconi's narrow classification of the regions. And how about the European indigenous Muslims of Bosnia and Albania? They in contrast to the Copts fit in both of Berlusconi’s categories; which prevails? Berlusconi sees a connection between human rights violations and backwardness, and Islam. I wonder what he would have to say about the Christian African presidents who obviously preside over backward societies, and some of whom have stark anti-human right records. On the other hand,, what would he have to say about the Muslim-American, Professor Cherif Bassiouni, the foremost figure in the fight for a UN international criminal court to persecute human rights violators? Is all this not enough evidence to dissuade him from linking backwardness and human right violation to a particular faith? It as futile an argument to attribute backwardness in Bangladesh to Islam as it is ridiculous to attribute the advancements in Germany to Lutheranism. The backward world is not defined against religious lines. There are many Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and people of other faiths that share the backward lifestyle. Likewise, there are many Muslims that contribute to the advancements of the first world nations.

Berlusconi's claim that Western civilization is somehow superior in terms of its social sophistication and its human rights record is a shocking argument that is almost entirely oblivious to Western history. What does Berlusconi have to say about the exclusively Western regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Stalin, and Milosevic? Their human rights violations are some of the worst recorded in history - for any civilization. What does he have to say about the American extermination of the Native American populations, the enslavement of Africans and others in the West, and Colonialism with all its human rights violations that saw the entire planet as its stage? What does he have to say about the Italian Mafia with its corruption, and human rights violations? Is this not the Western world? What does he have to say about the inquisition and the holocaust in which humanity witnessed some of the most atrocious mass human rights violations in history? Western civilization's poor human rights record extends as far back as its earliest years with the Romans who found entertainment in throwing unarmed men to Lions, and who made a public arena sport of armed men butchering each other. And were the Vikings necessarily world-renown for their compassion and humanity? What does Berlusconi have to say about the countless, tumultuous European wars proclaimed in the name of Christ?

What does he have to say about the bloody Crusades? What does he have to say about the wars of the great Western Napoleon in which 3 million people lost their lives in a savage and brutal warmongering campaign? What does he have to say about the British hunting of the Aborigine inhabitants of Tasmania into extinction - as a mere sport and in as recent as the 19th century? After all this, under what bizarre pretense can any sane man proclaim superiority for the Western civilization in as far as human rights, and social sophistication are concerned? You cannot do it - not without resorting to sipping tea and nibbling on biscuits as your criteria.

Is all this death, torture, destruction, and injustice not a form of backwardness, or is it not so simply because the West looked economically affluent while doing it? Is it all supposed to be brushed aside just because men pranced around in pony-tailed wigs, gloves, and white stockings as they listened to classical music in sunny, luscious, rosebud gardens? If they had large beards, and lived in tents, would their cruelty have been more accentuated? The answer to all three questions is a subconscious affirmative if you view history with a shallow eye, or with Berlusconi's one-dimensional lens.

I also wonder where Berlusconi gives himself the right to proclaim Western superiority in the areas of diversity and tolerance. Now that he mentions it, I am inclined to remind him of a few facts that I am sure he will find to be not so glorious. As diverse and various as the European societies in which Jews lived as minorities were, none were so tolerant as to merit the label of “the Jewish Golden age” as that of Muslim Spain. Indeed, the Jewish experience throughout every other European society is conspicuously self-described as intolerant and racist by Jews themselves. I am sure Burlesconi will agree that the inquisition was not the most tolerant of celebrations. Even today, the issue of racism is a much more prevalent problem in the US, and Europe than in the Middle-East for example. We see it in football stadiums where fans from Italy’s Lazio and Spain’s Atletico Bilbao chant racist abuses at Black players. We see it on German streets; we read it as graffiti on English subways; we hear it in the words of the conservative right-wing politicians of France and Denmark. On the other hand, in a society like Egypt, blondes, blacks and everything in between are simply Egyptian, and seldom is racism a problem. If anything, modern Muslim societies are more race-tolerant than European ones. They are certainly more hospitable when it comes to foreigners. Is Western society even so tolerant amongst itself? Is Burlesconi aware of the cultural strife between the Flemish and French speaking constituents of Belgium, or the political strife between the Basque separatists and the Spaniards? Even in Italy, the Lega-Nord, led by Burlesconi’s old friend, Umberto Bossi, has been campaigning to secede North Italy from a union with the much-detested South, to form the new nation-state of Padania. (It is interesting to note that it was indeed Burlesconi’s cooperation with the Lega-Nord under an organization by the name of Lega-Nord-Forza-Italia that he was able to secure the post of prime minister in 1994.)

I cannot claim that one civilization is superior to another, but I can definitely rebuff such a claim when made by someone else. I have attempted to demonstrate through historical evidence that Burlesconi’s feelings of superiority have no backing in truth or history. I would do the same with Islamic civilization if a Muslim were to attribute a natural superiority to Muslim civilization. This article, by the nature of its subject matter, inclined me to enumerate and shed light on the shortcomings of Western civilization. However, I am very mindful of its achievements and positive contributions. Like most rational individuals, I can only be grateful for, and appreciative of, the Western civilizations that bequeathed their great and unique legacies to all of humanity.

Truth of the matter is evil and goodness can never be drawn against geographical, religious, or racial lines - nor can advancement and backwardness. It is almost on an individual basis that these classifications can be made. The Muslim world has its share of good and evil, advancement and backwardness, as does the West. Each has made wonderful contributions to humanity, and both Berlusconi and myself are indebted to both the contributions of the Muslim and Western civilizations. Berlusconi must never forget that Western civilization was jumpstarted out of the dark middle ages through the renaissance of Muslim Spain, just as I do not forget that the West's subsequent contributions are responsible for many of the positive features of my life today. Humanity is one race, one civilization, very much intertwined and interdependent. Berlusconi's infantile attempts to create teams out of humanity should be better reserved for his football club, AC Milan.

- A. M. Rehab