Culture & Conversation

Virtual Jihad

Right now, 1.2 billion people in our world practice open defecation. There are nearly 200,000 political prisoners in North Korean’s brutal prison camps and approximately 50,000 Iraqi refugees have been forced into prostitution, many of whom are girls as young as 11, 12. For the rest of us, these particular global inequities are not so disconcerting. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. However, for Iraqi born New York artist Wafaa Bilal, such escapes from awareness is not possible. That his feet are in two worlds – of both comfort and conflict – is brilliantly illustrated through his art, an art of activism.

Bilal’s computer-based art piece, Night of Bush Capturing: Virtual Jihadi, was featured in the Blown Up: Gaming and War exhibition that just ended at the MAI gallery. Although it is not exactly equivalent to playing Duck Hunt, it shares a similar objective:  to kill. Winning a round of Night of Bush Capturing requires one to side with the militant Islamist organization ‘al-Qa’ida’ and blow-up George W. Bush in a suicide attack.

Unwarranted, punitive, simple lunacy. Where is the activism in such art? How can Jihad be used as peaceful engagement? Except this is exactly what Bilal’s art aims to provoke. Ingeniously, Bilal uncovers our perceptions and misunderstandings of ideology and war by exposing notions behind preconceived perceptions and misunderstandings – the plague of society.

Once advancing through the terrain in the hunt for George W., the hyper-reality of the game kicks in. During the course of the game, you learn that the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq  resulted in the death of your brother by a suicide bomb. As a result of this, you have no choice but to join al-Qa’ida. Bilal cleverly inverts assumptions, demonstrating the vulnerability of Iraqi citizens and exemplifying the travesties of war.

Bilal suggests an alternative narrative, one where we resist the stereotypical singular perspectives of all combat video games. “The game holds up a mirror that reveals our own propensities for violence, racism and propaganda. We can close our eyes, our ears and deny that it exists, but the issue won’t go away.”

Born in Najaf, Iraq (1966) Bilal is all too familiar with suppression. Having been prohibited from studying art in University as a result of an alleged disloyalty of a member of his family, he studied Geography, continuing to work on his art. This led to his arrest as a dissident by the regime of Saddam Hussein. Fleeing Iraq in 1991, living as a refugee in Saudi Arabia, he went on to obtain a BFA in 1999 from the University of New Mexico and a MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2003. He currently is a professor at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Newsweek magazine described Bilal’s art as “breathtaking” and the Chicago Tribune named him 2007’s “artist of the year.”

In pursuit of attaining greater consciousness, temporarily stepping out of our “comfort zones” to the unfortunate mindful realities of our world, it is highly recommended to check out Bilal’s art and lectures, which can be followed at

An opportunity to play the role of the Jihadi can also be done at the next ‘Blown Up: Gaming and War’ exhibition come 18th January at Gallery 101 in Ottawa.

Raised in British Columbia of South Asian Heritage and  now living in Montreal, Zeshaun researched Muslim hip hop to obtain an MA in Near and Eastern Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He has traveled extensively and studied in North Africa and the Middle East.

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