Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, in a rare moment of self-criticism, lashed out at what he described as "backward" societies in the Middle East, arguing that government heavy-handedness in dealing with political opposition stemmed from the violent nature of that dissent.
"You ask us, `Why do you oppress opposition in the Middle East?'" Qaddafi told attendees at a Columbia University panel discussion on democracy on Thursday, speaking in Arabic during a live video appearance.
"Opposition in the Middle East is quite different from opposition in advanced countries. In our countries, the opposition takes the form of explosions, assassinations, killing," he said.
"Because opposition in our country is different from opposition in your country. Our opposition resorts to bombs, assassinations, explosions, subversive acts, trains in military camps -- in some cases before the Sept. 11 events," said Qaddafi, whose country for years was accused of being a state sponsor of terrorism.
Qaddafi's comments came in response to several questions by the Columbia panel asking him to comment on shortcomings in Libyan society. Qaddafi said he was proud of what he considered a complex society and what he says is the world's only true participatory democracy.
But he argued that the political and social mind-set of the region had failed to adapt to a changing world.
"How many countries have seen this form of opposition. This is a manifestation of social backwardness," said Qaddafi, who appeared on the screen wearing a plum-colored robe.
The two-day Columbia conference on "prospects for democracy" was billed as the first major meeting of American and Libyan academics and officials in 25 years.
The talk was Qaddafi's latest gambit to reintegrate his oil-rich nation into the international community after almost two decades of being viewed as a rogue state.
In remarks apparently intended to fend off criticism of the Libyan authorities' handling of riots last month that left 11 dead, Qaddafi said the protests stemming from the publication of cartoons ridiculing Islam's Prophet Mohammed elicited a coarse reaction from all sides.
"Our methods are very backward indeed. The methods of opposition in our country are also quite different. Even when it comes to demonstrations, they are against Mohammed cartoons, they use bullets. You use tear gas or hoses; the police in our countries react in a backward way because they are part of a backward society," he said.
Qaddafi also criticized Islamic fundamentalism and what he said was its blight on education, research and health care.
"In a good number of Islamic countries the school curriculum would prohibit many scientific researches," he said.
"In some Islamic countries, to see the fetus inside the pregnant woman is prohibited because only God, to some people, knows the gender of that fetus. How could that be prohibited? That is because of backwardness," he said.