Jabba and Racism

The People’s Court of the Internet is now in session, the Honorable Judge 770 presiding! You may be seated… Bailiff, read the charges.

The Turkish Cultural Community of Austria accuses the toymaker Lego of perpetuating racism and prejudice against Muslims among children by making its Jabba’s Palace set look like a mosque.

People sent me several copies of this story last year but I put off writing about it because I momentarily expected Snopes.com to announce the complaint was a hoax, and the organization possibly nonexistent. Unexpectedly, a Snopes.com message board identified a genuine-looking website for the Türkische Kulturgemeinde Österreich (Turkish Cultural Community of Austria), adorned by recent clippings of its director’s quotes from Spiegel Online Panorama (rendered in English by Google Translate) —

General Secretary Melissa Gunes: “We want to first of all have peace in our own home. This peace is endangered by war toys such as LEGOs ‘Jabba’s Palace.’ Peace at home, peace in the country, peace in the world. This is our motto! I hope that LEGO is helping to make this world.

“Lego means in Danish ‘Good game.’ Stars Wars in English means ‘Star Wars,’ and the culture-racist toy ‘Jabba’s Palace’ is molded in plastic clichés and prejudices that give us no feeling of ‘play good,’ but rather of ‘evil.’”

The internet’s let’s-you-and-him-fight media loved this story because it made both sides look bad and when there are two losing sides the cognoscenti can enjoy themselves twice as much.

The figure of Jabba the Hutt towers over Ray Bradbury at the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con. Photo by John King Tarpinian.

The figure of Jabba the Hutt towers over Ray Bradbury at the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con. Photo by John King Tarpinian.

Lego looks bad because there is an undeniable grain of truth in the complaint. Star Wars’ Jabba the Hutt looks like Casablanca’s Signor Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet) reincarnated as a mutant sea slug. Both characters control crime syndicates in desert cities. But Ferrari’s Casablanca existed only on a sound stage while the exteriors for Star Wars’ Mos Eisley were actually shot on location in Tunisia, imagery Lego extrapolated into a grandiose headquarters for a villain that arguably resembles the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Are we supposed to pretend that it doesn’t?

On the other hand, the protestors’ complaint has a kind of easy-to-criticize, past-sale-date quality. Jabba’s palace was shown in The Return of the Jedi in 1983 without any known fuss. Starting one now?

The story intrigued me because I’ve been inside the Hagia Sophia. I was fortunate to travel to Turkey and see some of its greatest historical and archeological sites in 2004 — although that was not the most auspicious time for an American to be traveling there, just three weeks after the Abu Gharib photos were published. No, indeed. Our Turkish tour guide felt the urge to take the microphone a couple of times and air his opinion of the Bush administration. Otherwise, things went pretty smoothly. Well, except the afternoon I was ripped-off by an Istanbul cabbie who realized I was ignorant of the exchange rate and bilked me out of US$75 in Turkish currency for a six block ride. A more serene individual would have been thrilled by this authentic connection to tourist traditions reaching back to the founding of Constantinople. Not me.

12 thoughts on “Jabba and Racism

  1. I’ve been to the Haiga Sophia too (and the Blue Mosque) too, but I had no trouble with Istanbulian taxi drivers or anyone else in Turkey. In fact I rather liked the place and the people. As for Jabba’s Palace, yeah, there’s a slight resemblance…but hardly enough to make a fuss about, IMHO. The Haiga Sophia is not an example of Turkish or Islamic architecture. It was built by the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, and was originally a cathedral; it didn’t become a mosque until after the Turks conquered the city in the middle of the 15th century. The minarets are later additions.

  2. What is the problem with these Australians? If they don’t like Eggos why don’t they just buy something else? Why is all the trouble in the world caused by these short Australians, like Mel Gibson? Why don’t they just try the Star Wars toast as mentioned in today’s other post? I bet Gibson has one of those Darth Vader toasters.

  3. Australians? Austrians! The two are often mixed up, such that you can get kangaroo baseball caps as souvenirs in Vienna. There is a Vienna in Illinois, but it’s pronounced “Vy-enna” not “Vee-enna”. But then what would you expect of a state where Cairo is pronounced “Kay-ro” like the syrup, and Athens is “Ay-thins”. I heard of another mix-up: scenery for a production of a Wagner opera in Bayreuth (in Bavaria) ended up in Beirut (Lebanon).

  4. (Heh, heh, heh)

    But I truly am not sure how Beyruth’s long time home run record is germaine greer here.

  5. Like Sam Long said, Santa Sophia was originally a Christian church, not an Islamic mosque.

    One wonders what we will do for villains in fiction when we are all Perfect and incapable of ethnic stereotyping. Whether Dark Vadar or Bluto, if they look like anyone at all, it will be reaacism. Maybe that’s when purple tentacled, many-eyed, blob-like slug-monsters will come into their own? Until, of course, we discover they actually exist and are already protesting the next Star Wars movie on their home planet circling ER 103904 d.

  6. The Hagia Sophia was a mosque for its last 478 years as a religious facility — long enough for people to get accustomed to the idea. In comparison, there are only four church buildings in the New World that have been in use longer than that. (Had the Hagia Sophia not been secularized in 1931 there would be none.)

  7. I was at the Haiga Sophia too and the Blue Mosque in October for second time, but fail to see how Muslims can be a different race. They’re Caucasians, just as the Palestinians & Israelis are both Caucasians & Semites, too.
    There is no argument I’ve heard that cultural differences are not to be subject to taste. Perfectly ok to dislike Muslim culture, for example.

  8. SAM LONG: There was an episode of All in the Family in which Archie Bunker got into trouble at work because, told to ship something to London, presumed London, England was meant, not knowing there was a London, Ontario, Canada.

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