The Italian gaffe

Dominic Standish reports from Italy on prime minister Berlusconi's lessons in the new etiquette of cultural diversity.

Dominic Standish

Topics Politics

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Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was lambasted when he said that the US-led coalition against terrorism ‘must be aware of the superiority of our civilisation’, because it ‘has at its core, as its greatest value, freedom, which is not the heritage of Islamic culture’.

Berlusconi predicted that ‘the West will continue to conquer peoples, like it conquered communism’ – even if that means confronting ‘another civilisation, the Islamic one, stuck where it was 1400 years ago’ (1).

Big mistake. Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the USA has attempted not only to build a new military coalition, but also a new etiquette for international affairs. And Berlusconi violated the first principle of the new etiquette: respect cultural diversity.

Berlusconi’s assertion of an ideological divide between the Western and Islamic worlds was, as it happens, artificial. Italy itself has long been a laboratory for the coming together of both worlds, and its geographical location allowed cities like Venice to be gateways to the East for goods like silk. The philosophies of the East and West traded ideas at the first university in Bologna – and there is even evidence that Italy’s national dish, pasta, came from North Africa.

But then, Berlusconi was not criticised for being historically inaccurate. His mistake was to assert the superiority of one culture over another – and that, today, is unacceptable.

Berlusconi faced demands from around the world to apologise. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the 22-nation Arab League, was ‘waiting for either a denial or an apology’. French prime minister Lionel Jospin condemned the creation of hierarchies among religions, while Egypt demanded clarification. In Italy itself, former prime minister Massimo D’Alema called Berlusconi’s comments a ‘planetary gaffe’; prominent politician Achille Occhetto suggested that Berlusconi should be banned from public office; while daily newspaper La Repubblica accused Berlusconi of displaying ‘cultural deficiency’.

In his statement to the Italian Senate on 28 September, Berlusconi was astute enough to realise he had violated the new etiquette: ‘I regret that somewhere people have established a supreme tribunal of ideological correctness and that the verdicts of this tribunal are passed without allowing the miscreant the chance to defend himself.’ And although he tried to pledge allegiance to the new etiquette, he couldn’t bring himself fully to endorse it: ‘A certain dose of cultural relativism is essential for tolerance – but absolute cultural relativism, in which there is the idea that all values and behaviour have the same dignity, is simply false.’

Sorry, Silvio, but ‘absolute cultural relativism’ is a contradiction in terms.

It is not only Berlusconi who has landed himself in hot water. Even President Bush’s administration is on a fast learning curve when it comes to the new etiquette, changing the name of its military operation from ‘Infinite Justice’ to ‘Enduring Freedom’ so as to not offend Muslims, who believe that only Allah can mete out infinite justice.

Such backtracking by Bush and Berlusconi reveal that while they think of the anti-terrorism coalition as a Western crusade in private, in public they are under pressure to learn the new etiquette of respecting cultural diversity.

But what does it say about Western societies and their leaders when they don’t even feel they can express their superiority to societies that do not have universal suffrage or free elections? Surely it is legitimate to say that some societies, whatever their faults, are more democratic than others?
According to Ahmed al-Baghdadi, head of political science at Kuwait University, Berlusconi’s remarks were ill-timed but ‘relatively correct’. Speaking from an Islamic country that does not have universal suffrage, al-Baghdadi said: ‘We have no freedom of thought or civil freedoms.’ (2)

If we want to defend and extend democracy, surely a first step is identifying where it exists and where it doesn’t. However, the new lingua franca of cultural diversity has made it unacceptable to say that one society or culture is better than any other. And, as Berlusconi’s case shows, anybody who questions the US-led consensus on respecting cultural diversity risks being condemned and told to shut up.

Whatever happened to that superior US constitution, and its guarantee of the right to free speech?

Dominic Standish teaches a critique of cultural diversity for the Consortium International Master for Business Administration, Asolo, Italy.
Comments to him can be sent to

Read on:

spiked-issue: After 11 September

spiked-issue: Race

(1) ‘Berlusconi comments cause stir’, Associated Press, 26 September 2001

(2) Europe disowns Berlusconi for attack on Islam, Stephen Castle, Independent, 28 September 2001

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Topics Politics


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