DRANCY, France — The suburbs of Paris where many North African and Middle Eastern immigrants live are dotted with mosques in unexpected places. They’re tucked behind shopping centers, in industrial districts and in former warehouses. They announce themselves quietly, with a symbol or small sign.
The mosque where Muhamed Lakhdar works in this suburb north of Paris is located behind a Carrefour shopping center, at the far end of a sprawling parking lot where most people pulling in were on their way to buy groceries.
Inside the mosque Monday, just before the 3 p.m. prayers, Lakhdar grimaced at the thought that Friday’s deadly terrorist attacks were carried out by shooters and suicide bombers who claimed his religion.
“Muslims wouldn’t do that,” he said in the small office where he manages the mosque’s affairs. In the attacks that killed 129 in Paris on Friday, the terrorists acted without regard to faith, he said. They killed Christians and Muslims alike. Two Tunisians, from his home country, were also among the dead. “To me,” he said, “these are like the Nazis.”
But some Muslims fear that the latest terrorist attack on French soil — following attacks in January that left 17 dead — will further fuel tense debates about religion and immigration in this country that is long proud of its secular tradition. French law bans conspicuous religious symbols, such as headscarves in schools and face-covering burqas in public spaces. Muslim leaders who have called for the construction of more mosques to serve the country’s growing Muslim population have also sparked controversy.
Several of the alleged attackers identified by authorities have roots in the Paris suburbs. Barely a mile from the Drancy mosque, police raided the apartment early Monday morning of the parents of one of the alleged attackers at the Bataclan concert hall, where scores of people were killed.
“We will pay for this — with the rise of Islamophobia, the rise of Marine le Pen, with unemployment,” said a man named Bouba entering a mosque in Paris, referring to France’s leading far-right politician, who called Monday for an immediate halt to the flow of migrants.
He recounted the opening words on a sign that hangs in many mosques in Arabic: “God, you are peace. From you comes peace, to you peace returns.”
If these terrorists claim they are Muslims, he said, they forgot that message.
For Muslim immigrants from North Africa in particular, the audacious attacks in Paris mean that the terrorism they left behind has followed them here.
“It arrived in my home in Tunisia before it arrived here,” Lakhdar said.
“It could happen the same in England, in Germany. You see it in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya, in Tunisia. It’s happening all over the place. But there’s nothing we can do.”
Many of the men who came to pray at the mosque declined to give their names or speak with reporters, citing a fear of retribution by terrorists and a wariness of how the Muslim community is often portrayed in the media.
One man, a 70-year-old father of six, offered an alternative picture of his faith for the public, but not his name: “Muslims have an open heart, they accept everyone,” he said. “The true Muslim is like that.”
In the 18th arrondissement of Paris, which is home to many immigrants and mosques, the city runs an Islamic cultural center meant to bridge divides between the secular city and its Muslim community. The institute hosts art exhibits by Islamic artists, poetry events and calligraphy classes. But there is also a mosque inside the building with a prayer space on the first floor. The building intentionally has only one front door, through which everyone must enter.
“The public that’s coming to pray, that doesn’t often go to museums, has to pass through the exhibit. And on the other side, the cultural public will see people coming to pray,” said Elsa Jacquemin, the director of the institute. “It works. We have never had a problem here. It’s like a dream.”
Monday evening, though, the men leaving the mosque for the Paris streets were withdrawn, wary of the very kind of public dialogue the center is supposed to create.