By Crispian Balmer | February 14, 2006
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's Reform Minister Roberto Calderoli has had T-shirts made emblazoned with cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a move that could embarrass Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government.
Calderoli, a member of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, told Ansa news agency on Tuesday that the West had to stand up against Islamist extremists and offered to hand out T-shirts to anyone who wanted them.
"I have had T-shirts made with the cartoons that have upset Islam and I will start wearing them today," Ansa quoted Calderoli as saying.
He said the T-shirts were not meant to be a provocation but added that he saw no point trying to appease extremists.
"We have to put an end to this story that we can talk to these people. They only want to humiliate people. Full stop. And what are we becoming? The civilization of melted butter?" Calderoli said.
The publication of the cartoons in some European newspapers, including one showing an image of the prophet with a bomb for a turban, have provoked widespread anger in the Muslim world.
Many Muslims believe it is blasphemous to depict the Prophet and there have been a number of violent protests in the Middle East and Asia.
The Northern League, which is gearing up for an April general election, has leapt on the controversy to promote its own far-right political agenda.
The League has long led the charge against illegal immigration and its leaders say the cartoon violence shows the dangers of allowing Muslim immigrants to settle in Italy.
"This is only the tip of the iceberg of the religious war Islamist extremists have declared on us," Calderoli told reporters earlier this month.
The Italian press reported that Berlusconi last week urged Calderoli to take a more moderate stance over the issue, but the minister said on Tuesday he had no intention of keeping quiet.
"As for Berlusconi, seeing as he has compared himself to Jesus Christ, I would call on him to follow (Christ's) example and think about evangelizing Christian values and not be evangelized by Islam," Calderoli was quoted as saying.
Berlusconi caused a storm at the weekend when he said: "I am the Jesus Christ of politics...I sacrifice myself for everyone."
Maintaining a steady stream of anti-foreigner invective, Calderoli earlier this month dismissed a Palestinian journalist on a television chat show, as: "that suntanned lady." He also said he was delighted newcomers to Italy would not benefit from a government scheme to encourage people to have more children.
"I am proud of the fact that the baby bonus will only go to Italian citizens. I say to all those Ali Babas that either Allah or their governments will have to think of them."
The League's anti-immigrant stance has found a sympathetic audience in the wealthy north of Italy, where many third world immigrants have settled in recent years.
League politicians say the immigrants are responsible for growing crime rates and are also challenging Italians for jobs.
Latest opinion polls say the League will get up to six percent of the vote in the April election against just 3.9 percent in the 2001 ballot. However, it is not clear what part the anti-immigrant rhetoric has played in this increase.
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