Reality Bytes

Reality Bytes
Cease Fire: A Look at Virtual Jihadi

Kate McKiernan | 18 Aug 2009 13:01
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Virtual Jihadi recently made headlines when New York officials shut down Bilal's developer display along with the hosting building, purportedly for building code violations. The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of Bilal, arguing that this exercise of government authority was really retaliation against Bilal and violated his freedom of speech. Having been arrested multiple times by the Hussein regime for his art displays in Iraq, Bilal is no stranger to being silenced by authority.

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The straightforward NYCLU complaint clearly spells out the details of the First Amendment-based suit. It explains how Bilal's piece was to be hosted by the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, New York. Before the opening of the exhibit, Robert Mirch, a commissioner for the city, posted a press release from his city office saying, "It is completely inappropriate for any organization in Troy to stage an exhibit that features a portrayal of a suicide bomber sent to kill the President. [They] should cancel this exhibit immediately." After comparing the game to 9/11 on a local radio station, Mirch organized and participated in a protest outside the opening of the exhibit. The next day, Mirch closed down the building, citing building code violations.

Complicating matters, the Sanctuary for Independent Media inherited these violations from the church that had previously owned the building, and the Sanctuary had received permission from the city to operate without fixing these violations until other construction had been completed. Lead Counsel for the developer Cornelius Murray said, "This case is a textbook example of an abuse of authority by a public official to suppress speech with which he disagrees."

Adding insult to injury is the reason that Bilal was displaying his work at the Sanctuary in the first place. The original hosting institution had shut down the same exhibit earlier in the year. He had been invited to be a guest professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute but once Virtual Jihadi went on display, the exhibit was closed, the art building was locked down, and Bilal was asked to leave. In a town-hall style meeting between students and administrators to discuss the piece, students asked for a way they could regain faith in the school's dedication to freedom of expression. The college president, Shirley Ann Jackson, said they should not have lost faith because the school hadn't done anything wrong. She went on to defend her position by stating she wouldn't allow a safe haven for child pornography, either.

Seeking sanctuary for his controversial piece, Bilal installed his exhibit at the Sanctuary for Independent Media, only to be shut down again in less than twenty-four hours. Frustrated at the whole affair, Bilal wondered why so many people were upset by his work if the CIA and FBI were uninterested in him. (The FBI reportedly made inquiries into Bilal's activities when they first learned of this piece, which they seem to have dropped upon learning the details of it.)

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