(If you don’t feel like reading this entire article, feel free to skip to the bottom for the conclusion.)
By now, it’s likely that you’ve read about the “controversy” supposedly surrounding the new LEGO Jabba’s Palace set (#9516). If not, here it is in a nutshell: according to a story that surfaced in late January of this year, the “Turkish Cultural Community of Austria” (which has no English website, but here is an English version via Google Translate) complained that the LEGO set looked too much like the Hagia Sophia building in Istanbul. Apparently based on little more than this and the fact that Jabba smokes a hookah (water pipe) they jumped to the conclusion that Jabba and his retinue depicted Asians and Orientals as people with “deceitful and criminal personalities” and that Jabba himself was a terrorist who “likes to smoke a hookah and have his victims killed.” I’m not sure where the first instance of this story was, but here’s a link to it on the Telegraph’s website.
I don’t know about you, but the first thing I thought of when I read this was The Onion. It really reads like satire or an over-the-top prank. It just smelled funny somehow, and that was one reason that I didn’t write about it at the time. Also, it seemed to be popping up everywhere, always followed by a lot of reflexive muslim-bashing by commenters. That’s not what I really want for my site, so I let it go. After researching the matter a bit more closely, I think it’s probably not a prank, but it is very misguided. The accusations are ludicrous on their face. Hagia Sophia was originally built as a church, and while it was later used as a mosque it is today used as a museum. And it’s certainly a stretch to say that Jabba and his crew represent any particular race or ethnicity. In any case, it’s not as if LEGO made up the building just for their set — they’re just recreating the movie, just as other toys have (like the Micro Machines “Planet Tatooine” set, for example). The LEGO Group said as much in a statement, and for a while it seemed that was that.
But yesterday there was another flurry of news stories about this issue, this time saying that “muslims” were “declaring victory” and that the set was going to be “pulled” from store shelves. (Again, it’s hard to tell which site had the story first, but here it is on the Daily Mail.) Lots of mainstream news organizations have written about this as if it were actually true. But if you look at what is actually said in the story, all it mentions is that the Jabba’s Palace set is going to be discontinued starting in 2014. If you know anything about LEGO (or toys in general), you know that most products don’t have very long shelf lives. I fully expected the set to get the axe sometime this year and would’ve been surprised if it didn’t. Furthermore, the LEGO Group themselves are strenuously denying the idea that they are discontinuing the set due to these accusations, taking to Twitter to respond individually to people asking about it, and posting a page on their official website denying it. I can only assume that there was some sort of miscommunication somewhere, but the point needs to be made that this set is NOT being pulled from store shelves or being discontinued in any meaningful way. They are just going to follow the plan that they had from the beginning, which was to phase it out by the end of 2013.
This is not news and to report it as some sort of “muslim” victory is irresponsible. It encourages backlash against muslims, but the vast majority of muslims are not even aware of this so-called “controversy” and wouldn’t care about it if they knew. There are no membership numbers on the “Turkish Cultural Community of Austria” website, but it’s worth pointing out that the Turkish community in Austria is relatively small (a little over 100,000 as of 2007) and I am positive that the great majority of these are not up in arms about this toy. So it makes no sense to go on a rant about muslims in general in conjunction with this issue.
This kind of press can also have negative effects on the marketplace. Amazon.com has had the set at nice discount for many weeks, but the day the story appeared they completely sold out. I’ve heard that the sets are disappearing from many store shelves as well, no doubt to people betting that the set would become hard to find and possibly skyrocket in value. (It’s still available on LEGO.com, so obviously the product hasn’t been “pulled.”) Anyway, I just felt like I had to post something about this, because I’ve seen a lot of misinformed comments in the last day or two.
(Here’s the condensed version: While a small organization claiming to represent a very small percentage of muslims has made a complaint about the Jabba’s Palace LEGO set, it is meritless and the LEGO Group has done absolutely nothing about it except to politely explain the issue. The product is NOT being discontinued due to the complaint and it is not being pulled from store shelves.)