Mahmoud Benzamia, imam of Mosque El-Nour in Nice, France. (James McAuley/The Washington Post)

The Mosque En-Nour is hidden on the outskirts of town, tucked away in an anonymous office park behind the airport and off a highway. No feature betrays its identity; no sign marks its entrance.

Yet many people know exactly where to find it, and some are convinced that it has to go. On two occasions since it opened in June, nearby residents, to humiliate worshipers, have left the bloodied heads of pigs outside the mosque’s door. Shortly thereafter, regional authorities resumed their push to shut it down, after nearly 15 years of trying — and failing — to prevent it from opening.

This modest, nondescript house of worship, the largest yet to open in the region, has become a symbol of the precarious position occupied by French Muslims, the country’s largest minority, in a society reeling from terrorist violence and hurtling toward a watershed presidential election. If the mosque is forced to close, it would violate the age-old promise of a proudly secular republic never to discriminate among citizens on the basis of race or religion.

But a forced closure is a real possibility. Christian Estrosi, the president of the administrative region that includes the city of Nice, announced this month that he would launch yet another legal challenge against the mosque, which Estrosi, who raced motorcycles professionally in a previous career, would prefer to convert into a day-care center.

For locals — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — the eruption of this issue in the sunny South of France is hardly a surprise. Despite its reputation as a destination for Hollywood celebrities and Russian oligarchs, the scenic Cote d’Azur is among the most sensitive frontiers in France’s ongoing culture wars.

It was here that so many former French colonists and their descendants — known as “pieds-noirs”— eventually resettled after the bloody Algerian war of independence in the early 1960s. A staggering percentage of them now support the National Front, France’s far-right populist party: roughly 40 percent, according to data from the most recent regional elections.

It was also here that many North African Muslims chose to settle when they arrived in France in the decades that followed, mostly seeking economic opportunities. Resentment of them runs deep, and the establishment of the area’s largest mosque — even more than 50 years after these respective communities arrived — was never going to be smooth sailing.

Especially not after the terrorist attack in Nice in July, when one local Tunisian man, later claimed as a “soldier” by the Islamic State, plowed a rented truck through crowds of revelers gathered to celebrate France’s national holiday, killing 86 and injuring hundreds more.

Mosque En-Nour had only opened the month before the attack, but a growing number here began to view the notion of a large mosque — especially one housed in a building originally purchased by the Saudi minister of Islamic affairs — as further evidence of a fundamental incompatibility between the French Republic and its second-largest religion.

In the words of Estrosi, shortly thereafter: “We can’t go around proclaiming secularism everywhere and at the same time say that Islam and democracy are perfectly compatible.”

But in Nice after the attack, this narrative quickly broke apart: The first victim of the Bastille Day attack was Fatima Charrihi, 62, a devout Muslim and a member of Mosque En-Nour.

She had made the commitment to come all the way down to the Promenade des Anglais to celebrate her adopted homeland with her husband, her eldest
son and some of her grandchildren.

“My mother had said to my nephews, ‘We’ll go and get some ice cream,’ ” recalled her daughter, Hanane Charrihi, 27. “And, well, she never got that ice cream.”

In one of her last conversations with her mother before the night Fatima Charrihi died, Hanane, who lives in the Paris suburbs with her husband and two sons, recalled being regaled with details of Nice’s new mosque — confined as it is to a corporate office park far from the city center.

Having lived in the Mediterranean city since 1983, Fatima had no choice but to worship for decades with her children in a series of small, impromptu prayer rooms, her daughter said. Before Mosque El-Nour, there was no centralized place for Nice’s Muslim community to gather for major holidays and community events.

“She told me, ‘Oh, this is wonderful, beautiful, and with such good light, so much light,’ ” Hanane said.

She has since co-authored a book about her mother, “Ma Mère Patrie” — “My Motherland” in English — which came out last week.

The notion of pride in having a place, said Mahmoud Benzamia, the imam of Mosque En-Nour, is why he has spent the past 15 years fighting for the mosque’s right to open.

“It’s for our dignity,” he said. “The young ask, why do others have their churches and their synagogues? We, we have no place.”

“This,” he said, gesturing at the beginnings of a mosque still virtually empty, “is supposed to be a place that gives satisfaction and makes Muslims proud and grateful.”

And yet despite this mission, Mosque En-Nour is a modest enterprise. Strolling past, there is no way of knowing it exists, and its aesthetic is one of namelessness: concrete slabs, tinted glass. This could be a doctor’s office, a travel agency.

But the aesthetic has its advantages, Benzamia said: There is the inescapable reality of the world outside. “Our French co-citizens wouldn’t accept so easily a religious site in the city center, quite simply,” he said. “So, we prefer to be on the outside of town.”

This, Hanane Charrihi could confirm. When she and her family went to leave flowers for their mother along the Promenade des Anglais, she said, a man continued heckling them even after they told him they had lost their mother in the attack. “That’s good,” she recalled the man saying. “It’s one fewer.”

Walking through the mosque, which still has many trappings of an office — glaring fluorescent lights, linoleum floors — Benzamia directly addressed the implicit charge from local authorities that his mosque was linked to Wahhabism or any other radical strain of Islam often associated with funding from Saudi Arabia.

The reason the Saudi Islamic affairs minister, Sheikh Saleh bin Abdulaziz, had purchased the space, he explained, was that the community on its own could never have afforded anything more than a series of converted apartments. The rest, he said, gesturing at a haphazard selection of desks, books and spartan prayer rooms, was financed by worshipers.

In response to Estrosi’s assertion that his office continues “to have questions about the funding of this place of worship whose owner is still the Saudi Arabian minister of Islamic affairs,” Benzamia said that on no occasion had he been instructed to teach anything in particular by Abdulaziz or anyone else. Services are conducted in both Arabic and French, he said.

“We live in France,” he said, “and we respect the laws of the Republic.”

Estrosi did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In any case, Adolphe Colrat, the local prefect, already declared over the summer that Mosque En-Nour “does not depend on any foreign influence,” granting it clearance to open in a country that has recently started cracking down on foreign-funded mosques as a means of combating terrorism.

When it came time to facilitate her mother’s funeral, Hanane Charrihi insisted that it take place at Mosque En-Nour. It was there, in a makeshift atrium in the middle of an office park, that she and her family said the prayer for the dead.

“It was important, because she loved this place,” she said. “And it was the last thing we could do for her.”

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