Mohammed depictions spark age-old controversy

With worldwide riots, economic boycotts and a rising body count over the Prophet Mohammed cartoons, it’s worth remembering that, despite the rhetoric, depictions of the Prophet are commonplace — even in Shia Muslim art.

The difference with the 12 Danish cartoons: content and timing. Some of the images are undeniable vulgar, most notoriously that of Mohammed wearing a bomb as a turban.

But Mohammed depictions date back at least to Dante’s “Inferno,”and even today, one can buy portraits of Mohammed on the streets of Tehran.

And many moderate Muslims find the violence against Western embassies as offensive as the cartoons themselves.

But some past depictions have led to protests in the past.

In 1977, the Stateside opening of “Muhammed, Messenger of God” (a.k.a. “The Message”) led to a gang of Muslim extremists laying siege to the D.C chapter of B’nai B’rith. With more than 100 hostages inside — eventually released without any fatalities — the group decried the bigscreen depiction of the Prophet.

The film, dramatizing the birth of Islam in the 7th century, was beset by controversy throughout its production, with rumors claiming that everyone from Charlton Heston to Peter O’Toole would play the Prophet onscreen.

The big irony: Mohammed was never shown in the film, which went on to be a big hit across the Mideast and Muslim world while sinking without trace at the U.S. box office.

In a tragic twist of fate, the film’s director, Syrian-born Moustapha Akkad, who produced all nine “Halloween” films, was killed last year with his daughter in a terrorist attack by Muslim fundamentalists on a Jordan hotel that claimed the lives of 55 others.

Most recently, TV toon “South Park” portrayed Mohammed in a 2001 episode, “The Super Best Friends,” without any reprisals. The episode, which aired on the U.K.’s Channel 4 twice in 2002 and 2003, did not attract a single complaint.

“That’s because no one watches ‘South Park,’ ” quips a member of the animation team.

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