ALBANY (CN) – The City of Troy violated the Constitution by citing bogus code violations to shut down an Iraqi-born artist’s show, the nonprofit Media Alliance claims in Federal Court. Wafaa Bilal, an artist-in-residence at Rensselaer Polytechnic, made a video game called “Virtual Jihadi” – based on a real video game called “Quest for Saddam” – in which a suicide bomber was supposed to find and kill President Bush. A city public works commissioner called it “terrorism.”
The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute invited Bilal to display his digital art work “Virtual Jihadi,” as part of a visiting artist program focused on Islamic culture in March 2008. Bilal also teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Virtual Jihadi is a parody of “Quest for Saddam,” a game created by an American in which the player kills Iraqis while hunting for Saddam Hussein.
Al-Qaida’s media wing created a spin-off called “The Night of Bush Capturing.” Bilal hacked into the game and created his own version, featuring a character based on himself.
Bilal’s brother was killed in the Iraq war.
In Bilal’s game, his character is recruited by al-Qaida, becomes a suicide bomber and sets out on a mission to assassinate former President George W. Bush.
The Media Alliance says the exhibit is meant to provoke thoughtful discussions of the Iraq war and the roots of terrorism.
Bilal, who also lectures on the oppression of Saddam’s regime, said he was trying to spark a dialogue and raise awareness about Iraqis’ way of thinking.
College Republicans and other critics denounced the Rensselaer arts department, calling it a “terrorist safe haven,” according to the complaint. Students lobbied the college to cancel the exhibit and at least one alumni threatened to stop donating to the school if it was not canceled.
The FBI allegedly contacted the school about the “Virtual Jihadi” game. The controversy and potential protests caused the college to cancel the exhibit.
Media then Alliance stepped in and offered to host it at the Sanctuary for Independent Media, in a former church.
Defendant Robert Mirch, Troy’s Commissioner of Public Works – and also the County Republican majority leader – then issued public statements and took to the radio to denounce the exhibit as “disgusting,” “anti-American,” and “terrorism,” according to the complaint.
Mirch led a protest outside the exhibit the day it opened, when the city’s Fire Marshal and a public works employee showed up for an unscheduled inspection, and shut it down for bogus “code violations,” the complaint states.
The church’s doors were allegedly 2 or 3 inches too narrow, though it had never been cited for that when it operated as a church, according to the complaint.
The Media Alliance seeks an injunction and nominal damages for constitutional violations and abuse of governmental powers. It is represented by Cornelius Murray with O’Connell and Aronowitz.