TROY, N.Y.—An exhibit by Iraqi-born digital media artist Wafaa Bilal at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY, a suburb of Albany, was suspended by school administrators earlier this month “pending a more complete review of its origin, content, and intent.” The school’s president, Shirley Jackson, closed the show under pressure from Campus Republicans—who claimed that Bilal was a threat to national security.

The exhibit, titled “Virtual Jihadi,” aims to communicate the complexities of the ongoing conflict in Iraq. The artist was inspired by a popular American video game called “Quest for Saddam” in which the player hunts down and fights stereotypical Iraqi foes. Islamic extremists later rewrote this game so that players hunted down U.S President George W. Bush. Bilal co-opted the game, inserting himself digitally into the game as the “virtual jihadi” in order to point out the racism of the original video game.

Bilal, whose brother was killed in the Iraq war, said in a statement on his website that “[Virtual Jihadi] is meant to bring attention to the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians to the travesties of the current war and racist generalizations and stereotypes as exhibited in games such as Quest for Saddam; along with vulnerability to recruitment by violent groups like Al Qaeda because of the U.S.’s failed strategy in securing Iraq.”

The Sanctuary for Independent Media, an alternative arts and performance space here run by two RPI professors, offered to host the exhibit following its suspension at RPI. Robert Mirch, Troy Public Works commissioner and Republican Majority Leader of the Rensselaer County Legislature, organized protests of the exhibit’s opening night. The following day the City of Troy ordered the Sanctuary closed citing code violations, effectively shutting down the art exhibit.

One of the Sanctuary’s coordinators, Steve Pierce, told the World by email that, “We are in complete compliance with everything the city has ever asked us to do. Between the time of the original citation up to and including March 10 when they inspected the building just before the Wafaa Bilal event, they never threatened to shut down the Sanctuary. The first we knew of their concern was when we were shut down minutes before the opening of his installation in our gallery the day after his talk.”

Troy Councilman Bill Dunne told the Albany Times Union, “This isn’t the first time that code enforcement has operated in a fashion like this. It certainly, on the surface, smacks of political retribution.” The council’s Democratic majority has promised to investigate the manner in which Republicans have used the city’s code enforcement process.

For the time being rightwing forces have effectively silenced Bilal’s voice… The Sanctuary is working with local labor and civil rights attorney, Peter Henner and the New York Civil Liberties Union to discuss legal strategy.

The people of Troy and the entire Capitol Region are deeply concerned about the threat to artistic and political expression. Local activists have vowed to continue pressuring City Hall to stand up for free speech and fairness.

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