The world of manufactured controversy managed another great moment last month when a Turkish Muslim group in Austria decided to lash out at the Lego Corporation for 'promoting race hate' by selling a Lego model of Jabba the Hutt's palace from the third 'Star Wars' film, Return of the Jedi (you know, the one with Leia in the slave girl outfit. Yeah, you know...). Their contention was that the model:
Looked like a crude version of the mosque of Hagia Sophia, one of the jewels of Istanbul and a symbol of Islamic civilisation for many centuries:
Now, I'm far from the first person to point this out, but one major hole in this theory is that the distinctive shape of Hagia Sophia (i.e. the central part, minus the minarets) actually began life as a Christian basilica, its construction initiated by the Emperor Justinian in 532 AD, back when Istanbul was Constantinople (cue the song) and its huge dome modelled on the equally impressive Pantheon in Rome:
So it's actually a Christian building based on a pagan design, converted to a mosque in 1453 by the Turks, deconsecrated by the Ataturk government in 1931 and then converted into a museum in 1935. And a damned fine one, too.
But more than that, surely (as the Lego Corporation were keen to point out) the toy is based not on any specific *real* building, but rather a fantastical one from a series of films:
All well and good, and the controversy has petered out pretty quickly after the initial grab at some headlines (although it may have sparked the petition to turn Hagia Sophia back into a mosque that has since surfaced), and we can all fit it neatly into the "tch, Muslims are just *so* sensitive!" pigeonhole - see also Danish cartoons - and forget about it.
Except. Lurking at the back there, I can't help but feel that there is a point of sorts. Tattooine is a desert world, and for its architecture and atmosphere Lucas did borrow from a lot of countries that are now Muslim. Most famously, the first film was made in southern Tunisia, and borrowed a lot from local existing sites, including of course Tataouine, the real world town that gave the planet its name. The design for Jabba's palace was done by US conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie and does clearly borrow a lot of its look from a kind of generic 'Tales of the 1001 Nights' fantasy Arabia, and no doubt really does lean a little on the look of Hagia Sophia for its exterior, amongst other things. Furthermore, the whole hareem girl set-up inside is meant to remind us of a long tradition of fictional portraits of Arab slave dealers, and in general there is a kind of Orientalist stereotype that is being peddled. And he does have form in this area - it's just part of a rather dodgy evocation of other cultures that George Lucas has done a lot in his 'Star Wars' films, from the comedy Japanese accents of the Trade Federation to the comedy Jamaican patois of Jar-Jar Binks, and the pretty hideous anti-Semitic stereotype of Watto the merchant (also on Tattooine of course), all of which he can get away with by saying it's just "make believe". And of course it is, as far as it goes, but at the same time it is also drawing on less friendly portrayals of these cultures in the past. Star Wars leans much more on these kind of short-cuts and stereotypes than any other SF series I can think of.
So while they were clearly just trying to make some mischief and grab some headlines, and I don't have much sympathy with them, I do think that the Turkish Cultural Community of Austria have a semi-legitimate grievance there, but it's surely with George Lucas, not Lego. I don't think it's racism per se, but it's a rather more subtle evocation of negative stereotypes that comes quite close.