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Watching the Watchdog: Why Censorship Is Never the Answer

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Tim Knight writes the regular media column Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada.

My task here at HuffPost, as I see it, is to discuss events of the day that touch on the media and try to add something profound -- or at least, slightly interesting -- to the discussion.

For the past week I've been trying to write something profound -- or at least, slightly interesting -- about Innocence of Muslims. That's the film, made by those appalling Christian fanatics in the U.S., which sparked riots and deaths in the Muslim countries around the world.

I agonized. I talked to people whose views I respect (particularly when we don't agree). I checked out references to religious violence in the Quran. I had another look at Irshad Manji's book, Allah, Liberty and Love. (Manji, a Canadian Muslim, is director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University. The New York Times once called her "Osama bin Laden's worst nightmare." I knew her slightly when she lived here in Toronto. A formidable thinker.)

In her book, Manji doesn't understand why we in the non-Muslim world let "Islam-supremacists" get away with "stifling" the freedom of others. She wants us to be a lot braver:

"Muslims and non-Muslims who live in democracies have to develop the spine to expand individual liberty, not stunt it, because without the freedom to think and express there can be no integrity -- of the self or society."

Manji makes sense, but millions of Muslims around the world obviously disagree with her.

I spent hours on the Internet looking up everything I could find about Innocence of Muslims and any reasonably intelligent reaction to it, particularly in the Islamosphere. I wrote, copied, pasted, deleted, started again. Changed my mind a couple of dozen times on what I really thought about it all.

I deplore the film, of course. Its subject matter and plot are an abomination, deeply offensive to people who really, really don't need to be offended any more, particularly during this delicate time in their history.

And it's so crude. The English version of the 14 minutes on the Internet is appallingly badly directed, shot, acted and edited. It's so unprofessional, so ridiculously awful, that your average 12-year-old with an out-of-date iPhone would be embarrassed to be listed in its credits. God alone (fill in god of your choice) knows how much more awful it is in its dubbed Arabic.

So, since Innocence of Muslims is so offensive and it clearly has neither artistic nor cultural value of any sort, why don't we Canadians simply ban stuff like this on the provable grounds that it deliberately exposes people to hatred and contempt? And infuriates a significant number of the nearly 2-billion Muslims in the world -- something like one out of every four of us? And directly causes violence and death?

Why don't we sacrifice just a small part of our broad democratic freedom as a gift to our Muslim brothers and sisters?

Canada could lead the world by example. We could save lives. We could rebuild vitally necessary bridges to the Muslim world.

There's no doubt that banning The Innocence of Muslims and other such hate propaganda would go a long way toward repairing the increasingly alarming abyss growing between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds.

Surely, if we don't make some such gesture, political Muslim resentment and fury are already so high, the political Muslim world's sense of Western contempt for everything Islamic so palpable, that even more riots and murders in the name of The Prophet are almost inevitable.

But I have a problem.

I'm the same person who last June wrote in this space about the supreme importance of freedom of expression in a liberal democracy:

"I believe absolutely in my right to be offended. And to be exposed to hatred and contempt... Offending me, exposing me to hatred and contempt, is a small price to pay for my -- and your -- freedom."

Those sentiments are at the core of my being, part of my democratic soul. Which is the reason I simply can't propose that we lessen our democracies by banning any writings and films offensive to Muslims or any other religious folk.

(Even though I happen to think that by believing in some invisible, unknowable, unprovable higher power they're all superstitious, credulous, illogical and irrational. Anyway, I believe absolutely in their right to be superstitious, credulous, illogical and irrational just so long as they don't try telling me how to behave.)

So in the end, I take refuge with Irshad Manji and Rudyard Kipling.

Manji tells us to show some guts in the face of Islamic extremism. Kipling warned against giving into blackmail by Danish Vikings who, back in the 11th century, had demanded bribes to stop plundering England.

And that is called paying the Dane-geld;

But we've proved it again and again,

That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld

You never get rid of the Dane.