By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 8, 2008
NEW YORK -- In the video game that Wafaa Bilal created, his avatar is steely-eyed and hooded, with an automatic rifle at his side, an ammunition belt around his waist, a fuse in his hand and the mien of a knightly suicide-bomber. He is the "Virtual Jihadi."
The Iraqi-born, Chicago-based artist said he adapted his game from an earlier version made by al-Qaeda's media branch to raise questions about Americans' conceptions of the enemy in Iraq.
His work was briefly exhibited Thursday night at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. The game was projected on a giant screen so that one viewer at a time could play -- until administrators shut down the show Friday morning. The institute needed time to review the show's "origin, content and intent," said William N. Walker, a vice president.
To Bilal, who said he was arrested several times for his artwork in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, it was censorship.
"It's an art show that is trying to solicit a conversation among people," Bilal said. "And when you shut it down, you say you don't have any right to say your point of view."
The game has a tortuous history. It began as a downloadable video game, Quest for Saddam, that was devised by a young American and allowed the player to kill identical Iraqis in the desert while hunting their leader. Then the Global Islamic Media Front, the media branch of al-Qaeda, created its own version, Night of Bush Capturing, changing the characters so that the player kills identical Americans and ultimately President Bush.
Bilal hacked into the al-Qaeda version and created a character based on himself: a faculty member at the Art Institute of Chicago who loses his father and brother to the war in Iraq. The character becomes an al-Qaeda recruit and hunts Bush.
That was enough to get the FBI involved. Someone complained to the bureau, whose agents contacted the administrators of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Kathy High, head of the arts department, said in an interview.
Paul Holstein, a spokesman for the FBI's Albany office, would neither confirm nor deny her account.
"Under certain circumstances, it would be appropriate for FBI agents to attend an event open to the public for the limited purposes of determining if there's anything relevant to national security," he said. "If agents attended the event and determined there wasn't anything relevant to national security, they wouldn't pursue it further."
Bilal said he hopes to raise questions about stereotypes of Iraqis, and about conceptions of what creates a suicide bomber.
"I wanted to let people see how bad it feels to be labeled and hunted," he said.
Walker, the vice president, said in his statement that Bilal's lecture before the exhibit was "stimulating and thought-provoking," but "questions were raised regarding its legality and its consistency with the norms and policies of the Institute."
The controversy erupted two weeks before Thursday's opening, when the College Republican blog called the art department a "terrorist safehaven." Some students began to lobby the administration to cancel the show.
"The message he's putting forth marginalizes the seriousness of the threat of Islamic terrorism," said Ken Girardin, 23, chairman of the College Republicans and a co-author of the blog.
The arts department, known for cutting-edge work, overwhelmingly supported the exhibit. Faculty members said Bilal is a bridge-builder and cited an emotional conference call he had set up for them with Iraqi art teachers.
High, the department chairwoman, defended Bilal in an e-mail to a critic as a "respected artist" who "does not support al-Qaeda."
"It makes me very sad," she said.
Svetlana Mintcheva, the director of the arts program of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said, "A video game fantasy about terrorism is not a terrorist act."
Several of Bilal's other works evoke the violence of the current war. In his piece "Domestic Terrorism" in Chicago in 2007, he confined himself to a room in a gallery where he installed Web cameras and allowed Internet viewers to watch him eat, sleep, drink and read -- and fire yellow paintballs at him.
On http://www.dogoriraqi.com, people can vote on whether to subject a cute pug dog or Bilal to waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning.
Bilal announced Friday that he will make a copy of his work to be shown at the Sanctuary For Independent Media in Troy starting Monday. He will leave the other version of the piece at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as he awaits its decision.