Far right agitators and conspiracy theorists have seized on Monday’s horrific fire at the famed Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, using the tragedy to push baseless conspiracies about the end of “western civilization.”
Leaders around the globe have referred to the fire, which likely began as an accident, as a significant loss to world culture and French history. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to the building as a “treasure,” while other world leaders — including the Pope — mourned its partial destruction.
“[Notre Dame is] an architectural jewel of a collective memory,” he said, noting its significance to Catholics around the world.
Some on the far right, however, are using the incident to push baseless conspiracies, including claims that the fire was the result of arson, and that it further represented the decline of “western civilization.”
The latter is a recurring theme on the far right, and one of its least accurate, historically speaking.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, for example, white supremacist Richard Spencer tweeted that the tragedy may have been worth it if it spurred “the White man into action — to seize power in his countries, in Europe, in the world.” Far-right Rep. Steve King (R-IA), a white nationalist himself, tweeted that the cathedral was “priceless to all of Christianity and all of the West.”
As The Daily Beast noted, two separate Fox News guests on Monday speculated that the fire might have been caused on purpose, though both guests were immediately shut down by hosts Shepard Smith and Neil Cavuto.
And on the virulently Islamophobic website Jihad Watch, one columnist wrote that police in Paris had foiled a terror plot involving a young Muslim woman near the cathedral. The incident in the article, which quickly gained traction on Facebook, was actually from 2016. A disclaimer stating “this post is not about the fire at Notre Dame” was only available after users clicked through the link to the story. Other Islamophobes began widely circulating a video of the fire at Notre Dame overlaid with unrelated audio of people shouting “Allahu Akbar,” before YouTube, Twitter, and other platforms removed it from their platforms.
Key to each of those examples is the idea that “western civilization,” represented by the iconic Notre Dame, is under attack from non-“western” individuals or forces and echoes many conspiracies propagated by white nationalists.
Earlier this year, King was stripped of his House committee assignments for asking in a New York Times interview when terms like “white nationalist, white supremacist, [and] western civilization” became offensive. The far-right Proud Boys gang requires members to state in their initiation that they are a “Western Chauvinist and … refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.”
There is no evidence, of course, to suggest that the Notre Dame fire was anything more than a tragic accident. Experts also say the notion that Notre Dame’s destruction represents some sort of attack on western civilization ignores France’s diverse history, presenting it instead as homogenous, Christian, and white.
“[The far-right emphasis on ‘western culture’] is not using the past for the past’s sake,” said Matt Gabriele, professor of Medieval Studies and chair of the Religion and Culture department at Virginia Tech. “It’s using the past to mobilize a political argument that doesn’t care about historical accuracy but about what the emotional response is and the evocation that generates.”
“Europe has never been homogeneously white, we have architectural and contextual evidence of people from all over the place in Europe for the Middle Ages, the late Roman period and continuously through them,” he added. “The idea that Europe was a homogeneously white space is weaponized nostalgia.”
Suleiman Mourad, a religion professor at Smith College, specifically called out the far right’s baseless fear-mongering about the cathedral fire on Tuesday. “They want to legitimize their discourse by referring to the past, to make their political claims more convincing.”
Mourad also noted that the the idea of “western culture” as a single, monolithic entity did not exist until well into the 18th and 19th centuries, when academia started using it as justification for colonization and colonial expansion.
Cord J. Whitaker, an English professor at Wellesley College specializing in Medieval literature, added that many of the improvements in Medieval European architecture which helped create Notre Dame would not have been possible without exchanges between European architects and Islamic architects. The racist and Islamophobic discourse surrounding the far-right’s discussion of Notre Dame, he said, misses the point.
“Many people see that building as a symbol of care and sanctuary for all people, regardless of faith or culture,” he said. “To that extent I do think it should be a global project to take care of it — we run into problems when it becomes viewed only as a sign of western culture or European culture, [language] that feeds this fear-mongering discourse.”
This post has been updated with the correct spelling of Professor Matthew Gabriele’s name.