Controversy seems to follow Virtual Jihadi, artist Wafaa Bilal’s computer game commentary on America’s Iraq war policy.
As GamePolitics reported earlier this year, Bilal and his exhibit were uninvited from Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute following complaints about the game from the school’s College Republican club. After moving the exhibit to an art gallery in nearby Troy, New York, Republican city officials intervened, closing the gallery over alleged building code violations. Art gallery officials charged that the closure was politically motivated. The New York Civil Liberties Union eventually filed a lawsuit against the city over the issue.
Fast forward to this month. Bilal, an American citizen as well as a faculty member at the Art Institute of Chicago, is currently exhibiting Virtual Jihadi at the Windy City’s FLATFILE galleries, accompanied by a renewed round of controversy.
So, what’s the uproar about? By way of background, GamePolitics reader Zachary Miner described the game as the RPI/Troy flap was raging earlier this year. Bilal’s exhibit is, essentially, a mod of an al Qaeda mod of a forgettable PC game called Quest for Saddam:
During his speech, Bilal said that the idea for the game started with Quest for Saddam… in which the object is to find and kill Saddam Hussein. Apparently someone in Al Qaeda obtained a copy of the game, changed the skins of the soldiers and Saddam so that now the player is an Iraqi killing Americans and hunting George Bush [the so-called Night of Bush Capturing game].
[Bilal changed] the game from the Al Qaeda version so that instead of the player himself killing Bush, he now has to recruit someone else – in this case, a character skinned to look like Bilal himself… to become a suicide bomber and attack Bush. Bilial said that the point of this is to show the vulnerabilty of Iraqi citizens to recruitment for such purposes.
Negative reaction to the Chicago exhibit has come from a variety of critics:
- Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin: If you’re a left-wing artist looking for attention, you can never go wrong with assassination chic. The latest entrant is one Wafaa Bilal. He’s got issues, as they say… And Obama and his grievance-mongering supporters have the nerve to whine about that New Yorker cartoon…
- Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit: If somebody did this about Obama it would be a national scandal and evidence of America’s incurable bigotry. But since it’s an artist named Wafaa Bilal and it’s about Bush it’s just "confrontational art"… In an earlier age, this kind of thing would have been considered unacceptable enemy propaganda. On the other hand, this is just more proof that all the lefty bleating about George Bush’s fascism is just self-indulgent — and utterly dishonest — twaddle.
- Jihad Watch: There is freedom of speech and there is incitement to murder. A cartoon of Muhammad harms no one, although there are those who chose to consider themselves harmed by it, and think that it gives them a license to commit murder. This video game, on the other hand, encourages the murder of a living human being. Yet no one will be particularly concerned about this, while attempts to limit free speech because of the cartoons continue… It isn’t as if anyone drew a cartoon of Muhammad in this exhibit. That would be crossing the line, now, wouldn’t it?
- Israeli game blogger Avi Green : This is really obscene and disgusting, and that it should be shown at an exhibition where I’m guessing they wouldn’t even think of displaying the Mohammed cartoons from Denmark, should tell something about the true nature of the institute. Whoever Flatfile are, anyone with common sense should stay away from them.
Meanwhile, embattled anti-game lawyer Jack Thompson has inserted himself into the situation. As reported by Time Out Chicago, Thompson issued one of his typical legal threats to FLATFILE director Susan Aurinko:
Either you immediately remove [Virtual Jihadi] from your ‘art gallery,’ or I shall take the necessary legal action to have it removed. I have already contacted the Secret Service. Your public display of this game is a criminal act.
It’s unclear on what basis Thompson assumes the exhibit constitutes a crime. The FBI reportedly reviewed Bilal’s game when it was first exhibited at RPI in March and took no action. Thompson subsequently claimed in an e-mail that Bilal "threatened" him in a phone call last Friday, although the nature of the "threat" is not specified.
UPDATE: Executive Protection News has weighed in on Bilal’s project:
Executive protection specialists should not dismiss these games no matter how distasteful they might be. Suicide bombers have been very effective in targeting VIPs and have successfully assassinated national leaders, military officials and other key figures. The threat of suicide bombers to key persons is real…
While it is doubtful that this game will result in a direct threat to President Bush or even an immediate suicide bomber attempt, these games give legitimacy to the tactic and hence encourage those who are already predisposed to use suicide bomber tactics.