A Cosmic Gaffe, but Do We Secretly Agree?

Article excerpt

Despite later denials, the Italian premier meant it when he said that the west is superior to Islam. And the left, argues John Lloyd, implicitly holds similar views

Silvio Berlusconi said the "s" word. He has denied it, but the issue seems to be in little doubt. The Italian prime minister said, in a speech in Berlin just over a week ago, that "we should be confident of the superiority of our civilisation", because its guarantee of human and civil rights "does not exist in Islamic countries".

His fellow European leaders, almost all centre-left, did a mix of Schadenfreude and damage limitation over the weekend. Romano Prodi, the European Commission president, told George Bush in Washington that Europe knows how to "distinguish terrorism from the religious and civil aspects" of Islam. Gerhard Schroder, the German chancellor, gave an interview to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung with the express intention of saying that Berlusconi's remarks were "out of place". Chris Patten, the European Union's foreign affairs commissioner and a man occupying the same centre-right space that Berlusconi claims, said "the west must show more humility: it's certainly not the Islamic world which is to blame for the holocaust".

As more evidence emerges, it becomes clearer that it was no careless phrase. A number of sources have attested that the Italian premier said the same thing, with less inhibition, at a meeting of European government leaders on 28 September. Roberto Caselli, his minister of justice and a member of the anti-immigrant Liga Nord, had spoken about terrorism in what were reported as "racist" terms to his fellow European justice ministers at a meeting on 27 September -- to the agreement only of Dieter Bohmdorfer, the Austrian justice minister and a member of Jorg Haider's Freedom Party.

Berlusconi spent two days protesting that he had said nothing wrong, and then a day, last Friday in the senate, saying that he had been misunderstood. At the same time, and using the tactics that distinguished the media magnate's rise to power, he and his media went into top gear to throw the blame back on the left. "Communists are always communists," wrote the rightwing politician Gianni Baget Bozzo in Il Giornale, Berlusconi's daily. "You better shut your mouth," shouted the leader of the Forza Italia faction in the senate at Massimo d'Alema, leader of the Democratic Left, when the latter accused Berlusconi of a "cosmic gaffe" on one of the premier's own TV channels.

Berlusconi is proving himself to be a disastrously bad leader of Italy: the "cosmic gaffe" is only the latest indication. He has wholly failed to do what he promised: that is, to separate his media interests (which include almost all of the non-state TV channels) from his political role.

Instead, he has proposed that his own government appoint a three-person commission to oversee all conflicts of interest -- the transparent insufficiency of the move seems not to bother his supporters in parliament and the country. Yet, through his private and public functions, Berlusconi ultimately controls 95 per cent of all TV and radio broadcasting -- a position unrivalled in any democratic country.

He is going further. The right-wing majority has sponsored a law, now before the parliament, that would make inadmissible in Italian courts any documents originating from abroad that allege criminality on the part of Italian citizens. Many of the allegations of his own malfeasance originate from abroad: the passing of the law will mean that foreign proofs could be deprived of legal standing. Not only is the law flagrantly self-interested: it contradicts the trend, throughout Europe and beyond, of making legal systems more compatible and transparent.

A man of vast wealth, Berlusconi makes no division between the state and his own property. He likes to hold cabinet meetings in his own houses -- in Rome and outside. He has subsidised all the other parties in his coalition, and topped up the expenses and salaries of their MPs to the point where they are as much his employees as his colleagues. …