Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Controversies involving LEGO and Islam

There have been at least three instances in recent years where LEGO and Islam have been linked in controversies.

First, and most significantly, was the Muhammad cartoons controversy. Back in 2005, Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, printed political cartoons depicting Muhammad as part of a discussion of Islam and self-censorship. Many Muslims became enraged - in part because representational art, especially of Muhammad, is itself banned by Muslim beliefs, but more so because some of these representations were distinctly negative. 3 of the 12 directly link Muhammad to violence and terrorism, 1 refers to the oppression of women - of the others, 4 are more self-referential to the call by the newspaper to make these cartoons (though two associate it with a potential violent response by Muslims), 1 is about how noone knows what Muhammad actually looked like, and the remaining 2 are completely neutral pictures of a guy with a beard and a turban. Other, more offensive cartoons were posted on various websites and some in Muslim nations believed those were also part of the original newspaper. Anyway, a great deal of anger was stirred up in several Muslim dominated countries, including riots, violence against four Danish embassies and many deaths. This involves LEGO because in addition to the violent responses in some areas, many Muslims boycotted Danish products, including LEGO. In a backlash to this boycott, some in Western nations called for people to buy more Danish products, again including LEGO. There does not seem to be an ongoing universal rejection of LEGO in Islamic nations, as the next two Legoland theme parks are being built in the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia. The violent response to the cartoons was noted in this editorial cartoon by Matthew Westervelt.

In October 2006, LEGO issued an apology to Muslims who may have been offended by an image that was circulating on the internet. An unknown person took an image from the Brick Testament, relabeled it as Muhammad in a sexual situation, and made fake box art so it appeared to be an official LEGO set. Presumably LEGO was issuing the apology as a preemptive move to avoid any of the sorts of boycotts or even violence seen over the cartoon controversy described above. For the record, the original image was NOT meant to depict Muhammad, but was rather an illustration of immorality in ancient Israel when there was no central leadership. BTW, if you click the link you go to the complete picture, which is slightly more explicit. If you are offended by two toy figures lying together, implying a sex act, don't follow the link. Disturbingly, LEGO noted in their letter that they were working with the Danish police and seeing if they could stop offensive uses of their products. I'm very opposed to moves by some (largely driven by some Islamic groups but with the cooperation of some Western nations) to outlaw offensive speech.

Finally, and not directly about Islam, in December 2008, the London newspaper the Sun published an article entitled Osama Bin Lego. LEGO has historically shied away from sets depicting realistic modern violence (yes, there are exceptions, and this is an area of debate in the LEGO community). In response, many fans have created their own custom accessories, and some, such as BrickArms, sell these custom accessories. BrickArms sells a figure brandishing these weapons, named BrickArms Bandit - 'Mr. Gray'. This figure is not specifically labeled as a Muslim, but in today's media, terrorists are most often associated with Islamic groups such as Al Quaeda. It appears that the Sun created a mini-controversy, seeking out a representative of a Muslim organization to get a statement who labeled this as "absolutely disgusting" (also finding a representative of a Jewish organization to comment on WWII figures with Nazi insignia). There was some minor kerfuffle in the blogosphere about these toys. LEGO made a statement that these were not official products and that fan creations were not endorsed by the company. Article scan by Flickr user Dr. Sinister.

I should also note that there have been other depictions of Muhammad in minifig form (pretty much a fig with a beard and a turban), just as there have been depictions of Jesus, Buddha, Moses and any number of significant religious figures. I've seen these pointed to on a couple of Islamic sites as somewhat offensive, but nothing has come of those. Indeed, Islam frowns on representational art (look at the decorations on mosques, etc - you don't see paintings of people, but tend to see geometric designs or elaborate calligraphy), so the minifig itself could be deemed offensive to some.


  1. Nice summary! Of all the bizarre groups to have odd opinions on LEGO, I think that the disdain some Muslims have for all things Danish is probably the craziest (I've corrected a few bloggers who spread the "Play Like the Prophet" garbage only to get a response of "but they're still Danish").

    ...is it safe to assume a Jewish version is coming mentioning that "artist" they mistakenly licensed before they realized what he was building (a fake concentration camp)?

  2. Hey Dan,

    I'd be interested in hearing more about "play like the Prophet" in relation to LEGO. I did a quick search and only found one hit on that phrase in a post on raising Muslim kids, but they were really talking about running races, swimming and wrestling (I gather that there are specific references to Muhammad doing each of those). Basically a Muslim take on my "What Would Jesus Build?" post a few days ago.

    Yes, I'll get to Zbigniew Libera's work soon. I suspect that we have different takes.