'Virtual Jihadi' Leaves RPI; Controversy Doesn't

March 11, 2008

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute announced Monday that it would not permit the re-opening of a controversial video exhibit that the university suspended last week. RPI's announcement -- both the decision and the way it was explained -- infuriated the artist and art professors, who moved the video to a gallery off the campus. There, students who are active in the College Republicans at RPI followed them to picket and protest outside, while others streamed in to see the show.

At issue is a work called "Virtual Jihadi," which is the latest in a series of video games inspired by the Iraq war. In the first, “Quest for Saddam,” players tried to capture the deposed and since executed leader of Iraq. That game inspired an Al Qaeda version called “The Night of Bush Capturing,” which features players trying to kill the American president. In “Virtual Jihadi,” a player based on the life of the artist -- Wafaa Bilal, an artist-in-residence at RPI -- becomes a character in a game based on the Al Qaeda version.

Bilal, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was born in Iraq and sees the work not as a call to arms against President Bush, but as a critique of the situation Iraqis find themselves in -- where they dislike the American occupation of their country and feel pressured to support terrorism. Bilal stressed in two interviews that he does not support terrorism, but believes it is important for those who view his art to understand how U.S. policies encourage people in Iraq to support terrorists.

Last week, RPI temporarily shut down the exhibit, pending a review. The exhibit had been attacked by the College Republicans and RPI officials said they needed more information about it.

Monday's statement said that the exhibit could not re-open at the institute. The statement said that the decision "was based on numerous concerns, including, in particular two characteristics of the video game in the exhibit, as affirmed by the artist: First, that the video game in the exhibit is derived from the product of a terrorist organization; and second, that the video game is targeted to and suggests the killing of the president of the United States."

The statement -- issued in the name of William N. Walker, vice president for strategic communications and external relations -- continued: "Rensselaer fully supports academic and artistic freedom. We respect the rights of all members of the Rensselaer community and their guests to express their opinions and viewpoints. However, as stewards of a private university, we have the right and, indeed, the responsibility to ensure that university resources are used in ways that are in the overall best interests of the institution."

Bilal, in an interview after the statement was released, called it "wrong and misleading." In particular, he objected to the statement that he had "affirmed" that the art suggests killing the president. Bilal said that the game portrays characters doing that, but does not suggest that as a course of action. "I am making a social statement about terrorism, not supporting terrorism," he said.

Igor Vamos, who teaches art at RPI, said that by the logic of the RPI statement, "they would have to ban every Tom Clancy novel or the movie United 93" because those feature terrorist acts. "This is a massive overreaction," he said. "When a writer or actor plays a role, their beliefs don't have to match," he said, adding that RPI administrators should surely know that.

Further, Vamos said that in light of the fact that Bilal is known as a respected artist, as a person who fled Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and is a well regarded teacher, the RPI statement is "completely irresponsible and a travesty on a personal level." By implying that Bilal supports the assassination of the president -- when he does not -- RPI has made a "baseless accusation" that could leave Bilal vulnerable to being physically or professionally attacked.

"This is all just shockingly irresponsible on a human level," he said.

Vamos is a board member of the Sanctuary for Independent Media, an independent arts space near RPI, but off of its campus. The center invited Bilal to install his video art there, and he did so Monday afternoon, attracting a supportive crowd inside and College Republicans marching outside, holding signs that accused the exhibit of supporting terrorism.

The Republican leader in the county legislature is now calling for the show to be shut down.

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