EU foreign ministers on Saturday (29 March) broadly condemned a controversial film released by Dutch MP Geert Wilders which portrays Islam as a religion which incites violence, but defended the filmmaker's freedom of expression.
"The film equates Islam with violence and this view is sharply rejected," the ministers said in a statement released after their meeting in Brdo, Slovenia on 29 March. "The problem is not religion, but abusing religion as a pretext for sowing hatred and intolerance," the EU foreign ministers added.
Among other scenes, the 15-minute film includes footage of the September 11 terrorist attacks superimposed alongside verses quoted from the Qur'an, beheadings of hostages and executions of women wearing the hijab (covering the head and body of the wearer).
Muslim organisations condemned the film. Describing it as a "deliberate act of discrimination against Muslims," the secretary general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, said the footage was designed to "provoke unrest and intolerance".
Similarly, EU foreign ministers condemned the content of the film, but were quick to defend Mr. Wilders' right to make it. "The production of this movie falls within the exercise of the rights all our citizens have," they insisted.
Likewise, the Council of Europe defended Wilders' freedom of expression, albeit "in this case with disappointment and concern," describing its release as a "sad day for European democracy". The principles of European democracy were being used "to promulgate intolerant and deeply offensive stereotypes," said Terry Davis, the secretary general.
Perhaps mindful of the extent of the reaction to the publication of the Mohammed cartoons in 2005, EU foreign ministers stressed that "feeling offended is no excuse for aggression or threats".
"The vast majority of Muslims reject extremism and violence," read a statement released by EU foreign ministers on 29 March, which added that "freedom of speech and freedom of religion are fundamental values which we will not compromise on".
European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering said the content of the film was "designed to offend the religious sensitivities of Muslims in the Netherlands, Europe and elsewhere in the world". "On behalf of the European Parliament I totally reject [its] interpretation that Islam is a violent religion," he declared.
Political groups also strongly condemned the film. Joseph Daul, chairman of the centre-right EPP-ED Group in the European Parliament, said its release "can only cause hurt to Muslims everywhere and damage relations between Europe and the Arab and Muslim world," adding "we must now redouble our efforts" to promote the religious tolerance and cultural dialogue which are "part of our European heritage".
Meanwhile Martin Schulz, leader of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, said the film was "part of a systematic campaign to denigrate Muslims to promote an extreme-right party," adding that "releasing an anti-Qur'an film is the worst way of promoting dialogue with Muslim communities".
Describing 'Fitna' as "political propaganda" which "plays into the hands of extremists," Council of Europe Secretary General Terry Davis said it was a "distasteful manipulation which exploits ignorance, prejudice and fear".
Condemning Wilders' film in "the strongest terms," the secretary general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, said it "defames and denigrates the Holy Qur'an, causing insult to the sentiments of more than 1.3 billion Muslims in the world".