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The Other Side of Cannes: Muslim Community Fights Prejudice as Jihadi Cell Linked to City

Six hundred meters from the Croisette lies a community of French Muslims who remained largely invisible until their mosque briefly became the unwitting base for one of the most dangerous terrorist cells in French history: Festivalgoers "have no idea of what's really going on here."

Thirty-seven years ago, at the age of 32, Moustapha Dali quit show business. An Algeria native, he’d begun to build an acting career in France but tired of his Paris agents telling him he’d have to change his name to one “less Arabic, more French.” As Dali recounts it, “I told them I wanted to keep my name. I said Omar Sharif didn’t change his name, but they said, ‘He’s not a French actor, he works in Hollywood.’ “

When he found out much later through news reports that the men were part of the dangerous Cannes-Torcy terrorist cell, Dali was enraged and wrote an angry note to the RG, France’s version of the FBI. “I asked them, how could you leave me a hostage there all that time when you knew who these guys were?” says Dali. The RG responded, in Dali’s account, by telling him his letter was “rude.”

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“They were setting me up,” he says. “Those young men weren’t parked at my mosque to pray. They were using it as a base because it was easier than going into a cafe or someone’s apartment. Ever since then, you’ll read that they were ‘radicalized’ at this mosque. That’s a lie. We don’t do that here.”

Dali says his mosque includes “Muslims of all ages and types. Normal people of all ages, they could be Catholics or Protestants. We’re right in the center of town, totally transparent. We have no interest in radical Islam. It’s absurd, but it’s a way for France to make Muslims the problem and take the focus off all the economic problems in this country.”

It got worse late in 2015: Afif Lattar, a 32-year-old Franco-Algerian, who served as the imam at the mosque, was at home with his young family when French police burst in at 8 a.m. one morning. After searching his home, they told him he no longer could work at the Cannes mosque or even enter it or other local mosques because he was suspected of encouraging radicalism. Lattar fought the ban at court in Nice and won a judgment of 1,000 euros, an apology and a reversal of the decision. Dali invited him back to the Al Madina mosque, but Lattar said he wanted to take time off and return to his hometown of Toulouse. His wife, he told Dali, was “traumatized” by the whole incident.

Though Dali’s story checks out in interviews with members of the Cannes mosque as well as various French officials in the region, it was difficult to confirm with Cannes police. A woman who answered the police switchboard was vague about when the officer in charge of media relations would be in the office and said all reporters must come down to the station personally to track him down. “You mean even if you’re a reporter in Paris or New York you have to fly to Cannes to make an appointment in person?” she was asked. She said yes and hung up. The Hollywood Reporter visited the police station the next day. The officer was not there.

This story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.