Could Lego anti-Israel activism come to Academia?

Lego has been around since 1958, and ranks as one of the most popular toys amongst kids and adults alike. These colourful bricks provide hours of imaginative play, with endless possibilities for increasing fine-motor development and problem solving, among other skills. They were designed by a Danish carpenter,Ole Kirk Christiansen, who named his product “Lego” after the Danish phrase leg godt, or “play well.”

Their educational role is such that a Lego professorship is to be created at Cambridge University:

The role is being established within the Faculty of Education to “support research in the field of play in education, development, and learning in the University”.

It is funded by the Lego Foundation, the research arm of the plastic block-building toy company.

The General Board, in their Report on the Establishment of Certain Professorships… recommended the establishment of a Lego Professorship of Play in Education, Development and Learning from the start of the next academic year.

It’s wonderful to see elite institutions embracing innovative educational strategies. Of course the Lego Foundation’s motives for funding the Professorship are not entirely altruistic!. While this trend of commercialism infiltrating academia might cause concern, much more alarming is the massive funding by Islamic countries. Professor Anthony Glees, one of Britain’s leading authorities on security and intelligence issues, writes

…. The announcement in July 2009 that the well-known charismatic Salafist preacher and intellectual, Tariq Ramadan, had been appointed to a new Islamic studies chair at Oxford University passed virtually unnoticed. So, too, did the fact that it was the product of a massive UK£2.39m (AUD$4.3m) donation to Oxford’s Oriental Institute by the Emir of Qatar…Rumours circulating in Oxford University that the donation was given on condition that Ramadan got the chair were strenuously denied by the university.

… When, a few weeks later, the Erasmus University of Rotterdam announced Ramadan had been dismissed as professor of “citizenship and identity”…No eyebrows were raised at the reason for his dismissal (the extreme content of his weekly broadcasts on Press TV, which is funded by the Islamic Republic of Iran) or that the links between the Emir of Qatar and Iran are famously close.

Whether someone like Tariq Ramadan, who is regularly engaged by Tehran in its propaganda efforts in the West, is a suitable person to educate young British Muslims is surely something that should cause Oxford University to pause for thought…

What happens in our most prestigious universities appears arcane, even incomprehensible, to the layman. Moreover, Britain’s stringent libel laws (which allow not only individuals but also institutions to sue) ensure that those within our great universities who are deeply anxious about these developments keep their counsel and will only ever speak “off the record”..

But there was also another reason that Ramadan’s appointment (and the cash which underwrote it) failed to make waves. This was because there was nothing especially novel about the Arab and Islamic bankrolling of British academia. In March 2008, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia donated £8m to build an Islamic studies centre at Cambridge University. He has made a number of substantial donations to Western universities, including US$20m each to Harvard and Georgetown universities. Professor Yasir Suleiman, director of the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, said: “The aim of the centre will be to foster a deeper understanding between Islam and the West through the twin paths of high-quality research and an energetic outreach programme.”

The phrases used by all these professors…show that this funding is not primarily academic, and questions may be asked as to whether it is appropriate for an institution of higher education to undertake propaganda work of this kind.

The lion’s share of the funding (perhaps some £169.8m) comes from Saudi Arabia. …Using the Oxford Islamic Studies Centre as a platform in February 2005, Prince Saud Al-Faisal delivered a bald statement of Wahabist principles. The Saudis, he insisted, were entitled to have a very special position in Islamic matters as their country “was thrust towards assuming a position of influence and authority to maintain the moral tradition and the purity of Islam”. Islam, he insisted, had recognised the concept of human rights some six hundred years before Magna Carta. Saudi Arabia was “instrumental in the formulation of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights”, which “codified the Islamic view of human rights”. There could be no acceptance of Western ideas of human rights, because this would lead to “political domination by the West and the transformation of a highly devout and traditional society into a self-indulgent one”. In any case the “credibility of the West” had been “demeaned by its disregard and neglect of the greatest human-rights crisis in the modern history of our region — the plight of the Palestinian people“…

It is hard to believe that Arab and Islamic donors are keen to promote the free and unfettered enquiry which is the basis of all Western higher education, as they do not do so in their own universities. Where Saudi- or Iranian-funded centres are concerned, it seems reasonable to suppose that their job is to advance their benefactors’ view of Islam.

What is the public advantage to Britain, to any Western state, in accepting without scrutiny large amounts of Arab and Islamic funding which will increase the threat of terrorism and Islamist subversion rather than diminish it?

The vast majority of Muslims reject Islamism. But a small minority will embrace it. The answer to this problem is not to increase exposure to Islam by building ever more Islamic centres but, as with all religious activity, to confine the study of Islam — and other Middle Eastern issues — in a balanced way, within the bounds set by Western ideas of pluralism and rational, even sceptical, debate.

It could be argued that this funding has no relevance to a Faculty of Education. Not so, as education in universities has become extremely politicized, due partly to the increasing reliance by cash-starved faculties on overseas largesse from Islamic countries. It is inevitable, with the huge increase in influence, that we will see even more anti-Israel activities on campus, such as Israel Apartheid Week and BDS protests. In 2010, Mervyn Bendle wrote: How to be a useful idiot: Saudi funding in Australia:

 In 2007 it was revealed that the Saudis were planning a $2.7 billion scholarship fund for Australian universities, designed to facilitate the entry of Saudi students into Australia to undertake tertiary education in the face of restrictions on their entry into the US and UK in the post-9/11 security environment.

It later emerged that Griffith University “practically begged the Saudi Arabian embassy to bankroll its Islamic campus for $1.3 million”, assuring the Saudis that arrangements could be kept secret if required. The vice-chancellor promoted Griffith as the “university of choice” for Saudis and “offered the embassy an opportunity to reshape the Griffith Islamic Research Unit (GIRU) during its campaign to get ‘extra noughts’ added to the Saudi cheques”.

The issue ignited fears that the university would allow itself to become a centre for the promulgation of Wahhabism, the sectarian form of Islam that is both the Saudi state religion, and a chief theological component of Islamism, the totalitarian ideology guiding global jihadism and terrorism.

Moderate Australian Muslims expressed an anxiety that the Saudis were using their financial power to remake Australia‘s Islamic community and that the director of GIRU was the leader of a shadowy network allegedly promoting Islamisms.

These fears appeared confirmed in 2008, when Griffith hosted the controversial Islamist ideologue Tariq Ramadan, as keynote speaker at a conference pointedly called ‘The Challenges and Opportunities of Islam in the West: The Case of Australia’

The vice-chancellor published an article defending Griffith’s aggressive pursuit of Saudi funding … It also emerged that his principal policy adviser had told an ABC journalist that Australia’s universities were not secular institutions, and that “because we seemed to have no objection to the ‘Christianization’ of our universities, we could hardly object to attempts to ‘Islamify’ them or any other aspects of Australian life”.

The scale of this commitment was made clear in March 2002, when the Saudi government’s English weekly Ain Al-Yaqeen published an article on the “Billions Spent by Saudi Royal Family to Spread Islam to Every Corner of the Earth”. It described the 210 Islamic centres, 1500 mosques, 200 colleges and 2000 schools wholly or partly financed by Saudi Arabia in Europe, North and South America, Asia, and Australia.

Given the vast sums of petrodollars and the availability of useful idiots and agents of influence in strategic positions, it is unlikely that Australian universities will resist the allure of Saudi funding, nor will they resist pressure to guide their teaching and research in an Islamist direction, especially in connection with the war on terror, the history of Islam, the Middle East conflict, Islam and the West, and the role of women. Consequently, it will only be continuing public and academic vigilance and political pressure that will protect Australia‘s tertiary education system, moderate Muslim communities and liberal democratic traditions.

Political pressure and vast amounts of money can influence both academia and commercial enterprises. For instance, Lego have come under fire – but did not succumb to pressure – for producing gender-specific Lego sets:

LEGO is under fire from gender equality activists for offering a feminine-oriented version of the brightly-colored construction blocks, dubbed the Friends line, that is aimed to appeal to the tastes of little girls.

“Unlike the bright primary colors of the regular Lego sets, the Friends colors tend toward pink and purple and soft pastels. The comical mini-figures of the regular Lego lines have been replaced by five slender and stylish plastic tweens of various ethnicities, each with her own narrative story, along with puppies, kitties, “My Little Pony”-style horsies and baby animals ranging from penguins to lions. Little girls are encouraged to build things, all right: patios, cozy kitchens, cafes, beauty shops, doghouses for the puppies, stalls for the horses, all characterized by a level of decorative detail unknown in the regular Lego universe.”

The horror.  A online petition calls on LEGO to stop selling the “body dissatisfaction” seeding Friends line, because, you know, kids all want to look like LEGO figures, with those heads a third the size of their bodies and those claw hands. 

However Lego gave in to pressure and ceased production of their popular Star Wars set, “Jabba’s Palace”:

Jabba’s Palace: Lego Star Wars.

The announcement came shortly after the Austrian Turkish Cultural Community

complained that the set, which depicted the character Jabba the Hut in a “mosque-like” building, was anti-Muslim. In a press release, the Lego Company denied that the decision was a direct response to the complaints. 

The Muslim community specifically referred to a mosque in Istanbul when issuing their complaints. In response, the Lego Company stated, “All LEGO Star WarsTM products are based on the Star Wars movies …The building is the palace of Jabba — a fictional movie character.”

… it is far-fetched to accuse the product, and indirectly the Star Wars movie, of being anti-Muslim. Nevertheless, the Lego Company apologized for the misinterpretation:

Saudi funding of Western universities is immense. In 2012 it was reported:

Saudi Arabia has donated the most to British academia of all the Islamic states. The signing of a new research agreement by the University of Cambridge with Saudi petrochemical company SABIC (Saudi Basic Industries Corporation) suggests, however, that increasingly the country is diversifying its interests towards funding science and technology and away from its traditional destination of the study of Islamic culture.

The new strategic agreement between Cambridge and SABIC, however, is designed to a far greater degree with the benefits to SABIC in mind, with the agreement allowing the company’s researchers to work alongside world-class academics in university departments ranging from Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology to Functional Materials and Modelling.

It is not the first time that financial support has extended beyond the traditional destination of Middle Eastern studies. As Saudi Arabia has increasingly made its presence felt in the global power stakes through its business dealings, the University of Oxford has reaped the benefits of association with Wafic Said, a Syrian-Saudi businessman, who donated £23 million towards the Said Business School..

The idea that Lego could be used for non-play purposes is not new, as this website illustrates:

LegoViews is my original idea which I have developed and have been working on since 2011. All I do and publish here is done for pure passion, to understand the world and to learn. My research, writings and experiments are not supported or endorsed by anyone – no LEGO is not involved in my activities

 I am a Trained and certified facilitator in the LEGO SERIOUS PLAY method.

The author illustrates how Lego can be used for activism and to express ideas. Here are two examples expressing an Israeli and a Palestinian perspective:

Example 1. Holes, walls and bricks: Palestine with Israeli eyes

Michael is a true cosmopolitan Israeli citizen. I’ve met him the day I arrived in Tel Aviv, he asked me what was I doing and when I showed him the LEGO bricks he asked me to be interviewed. The first question was about Israel and we had a long and intense conversation about it. Then it was the turn of Palestine. ‘What is Palestine?’ I ask him. He doesn’t say a word, he has understood the process, he doesn’t ask, he builds.

Example 2. Palestine’s existence depends on respect and on our children

Dr Rauf Azar – Beit Sahour medical centre’s Director.

I go straight to the point, and ask Dr Azar What is Palestine?

He does not say a word for a while. Then he looks at the bricks and without even touching them, he firmly says ‘Palestine is nothing here…’

‘I need to talk to be able to think.’ he says and by taking the black small platform he says ‘This is Palestine… the area that is recognised to be Palestine… or that should be Palestine…’ I look at the black platform and ask him ‘So, Palestine is a black block?’.

Given that the Saudis have endowed huge amounts to spread Wahabbism, there is no reason to suppose their influence won’t extend to faculties of education. Might we see Lego toys being vetted to make sure they don’t offend Islam…or witness Lego bricks being used as propaganda – for instance to build a model of Israel’s ‘apartheid wall’?


Check Also

Yes, truly, Israel is not Canada- Opinion

We, like you, treasure democracy, humaneness, justice, and civil and human rights. We are not …


  1. Amazing and very interesting article. Thanks for the mention.

    • You’re welcome Pat. I found you website absolutely fascinating, hadn’t realised how versatile Lego was and how it could be used in so many different situations.

      • Pam Lego is amazing. My kids had it.
        I bought both Duplo and Lego for the boys. I took the Duplo to Cairns for Kai.
        I kept the Lego as it is always so great with other children visit.
        Only recently Kai said he’d love some Lego, so I sent it to him via Greyhound.

        • Yes, my kids also had it, and it was one of the few toys we kept. It’s coming in very useful now, with the addition of some new Lego friends in girlie colours. Good to know that Kai enjoys it as well.

  2. Leon Poddebsky

    Given the antisemitic nature of The Peace and Conflict Centre at The University of Sydney, it would not be a surprise to learn that that university is a beneficiary of such Arab largesse.

  3. Leon, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t the beneficiary of such largesse. It would be interesting to find out.