Lego says its "Jabba's Palace" construction set is modeled after the villain's lair in the "Star Wars" saga. A Turkish group in Austria, however, says the structure looks too similar to Istanbul's Hagia Sophia monument.
A Turkish cultural center in Austria has stirred up an international tiff over a "Star Wars" Lego toy: specifically, a model of Jabba the Hutt's domed palace that the Turks say looks too much like Istanbul's sacred Hagia Sophia monument.
"The missiles, guns and weapons ... in the Lego castle are questionable for the Turkish Cultural Community of Austria, even 'educational explosives,'" the center said on its German-language website. The center said a complaint was lodged with Lego, and it reserved the right to file hate-crime complaints with German and Austrian authorities as well.
In response, Lego said that "Jabba's Palace" wasn't modeled after any mosque or other holy place, but after, um, Jabba's palace.
"The model in question is not based on any real building, rather depicts a fictional scene of Jabba’s Palace on the planet Tatooine from 'Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,'" Michael McNally, brand relations director for Lego Systems, said in an email. "As is the case in all Lego sets related to the Star Wars property, Lego designers reproduce all structures, vehicles and characters based on the way they appear in the films. The company regrets that the group has misinterpreted what the Lego Star Wars set depicts."
McNally told NBC News that "the set has not been withdrawn from stores."
Jabba the Terrorist?
The cultural center in Vienna said the issue arose when a father lodged a complaint about the construction set, which his son received as a Christmas gift. The dad took the toy back to the store, and the center said it contacted Lego about what it saw as "educationally and culturally objectionable defects."
"The terrorist Jabba the Hutt likes to smoke hookah and kills his victims," the center said. "It is clear that the figure of the ugly villain Jabba and the whole scene serves up racial prejudice and vulgar insinuations against Orientals and Asians as sneaky and criminal personalities. ..."
What does Jabba's palace have to do with the Turks? In an annotated set of pictures, the center drew a parallel between the dome of Jabba's house and the dome of the Hagia Sophia, a 1,500-year-old monument that has served as a church and a mosque but is now used as a cultural museum. The tower rising beside Jabba's palace? To the Austrian Turks, that looks like a Muslim minaret.
The Turkish Cultural Community of Austria put together a detailed comparison of the "Star Wars" play set and the Hagia Sophia monument.
The centuries-old Hagia Sofia is one of Turkey's most famous monuments.
May 1, 2008: NBC's Lester Holt joins TODAY's Matt Lauer on his "Where in the World" tour and takes a trip through Turkey, visiting such colorful locations as Bodrum, Cappadocia and Ephesus.
As you might expect, the controversy sparked a storm of Hothian proportions on the Internet. The idea that a Lego toy could offend Asians or Muslims seemed so out of the blue that some commentators suspected it was an elaborate spoof. "A very successful one, well done to the author, you've had half the world's press swallowing it," Forbes contributor Tim Worstall wrote.
5,000 emails received
A spokesman for the cultural community, Ata Sel, told NBC News that this is not a spoof. He said the center has received about 5,000 emails so far about its stand. "We did get a lot of racist emails," he said, "but a lot of emails say we are right."
He hasn't yet heard back from Lego officially, but he has seen the company's response in news reports — and he doesn't like it. "This answer we cannot accept," he said. "Lego wants to make war respectable by producing games for children."
Instead of helping children build a "Star Wars" world, "Lego should show how to construct a peaceful world," Ata Sel said. "Lego is a big firm, with responsibilities."
It's not so unusual for folks to take umbrage at "Star Wars" and its characters: Over the years, the fictional universe has weathered claims of anti-Semitism and anti-Japanese sentiment as well as complaints about racial stereotyping by Jar Jar Binks. Do you think the latest protest by the Austrian Turks has a valid point, or is this controversy as silly as Jar Jar's accent? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
More about Lego offerings ... and 'Star Wars':
- 'Breaking Bad's' Walter White is a Lego man
- 10 Lego machines that really, really work
- White House turns thumbs down on Death Star
- J.J. Abrams reportedly tapped for next 'Star Wars' film
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.