The blaze that consumed much of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday afternoon was, by all official accounts, a tragic accident related to ongoing renovations on the structure’s wooden frame.
But that hasn’t stopped the “just asking questions” brigade from pushing their usual brand of nonsense.
In the hours after the iconic 12th century monument went up in flames, far-right conspiracy theorists began casting doubt on the official story. Twitter fabulists with tens of thousands of followers hypothesized that a fire of this scale simply couldn’t be accidental. They pointed to other recent church fires as evidence that what happened to Notre Dame was part of a broader attack on Christian faith and “western civilization.” Many engaged in Islamophobic fear-mongering, lashing out at Muslim Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) for a tweet lamenting the fire that they found lacking.
In short, they engaged in their predictable, bad-faith twisting of real events to fit a convenient narrative.
Fox News took heat from some of these operators for taking the unusual step of shutting down interviews with people promoting unfounded conspiracies about the fire.
Shep Smith did so first, cutting off far-right French media figure and local elected official Phillippe Karsenty for likening the fire to “a French 9/11.”
“So, of course, you will hear the story of the political correctness which will tell you it’s probably an accident,” Karsenty said, claiming that churches are “desecrated each and every week in France, all over France.”
Smith interrupted, saying he wouldn’t let his show be used as a platform for conspiracy theories that are “worthless and in many cases counterproductive and injurious to society.”
Fox’s Neil Cavuto also ended a phone interview with Catholic League president Bill Donahue after Donahue said he was “suspicious” that the fire was truly an accident.
“Just last month, a 17th century church was set on fire in Paris,” Donohue said. “We have seen Tabernacles knocked down, crosses have been torn down, statues have been smashed.”
“Bill, we don’t know that, we don’t know,” Cavuto interjected. “So if we can avoid what your suspicions might be, I do want to look at what happens now.”
On Twitter, the conspiracy-mongering was far worse.
Right-wing commentator Pardes Seleh, who has worked at Fox News, The Daily Wire, and Red Alert Politics and has over 60,000 followers, claimed, with no evidence to speak of, that she had almost “no doubt this was arson.”
“this is a conspiracy theory i’m willing to be ridiculed for if it comes out wrong,” Seleh tweeted. “are catholics just having bad fire luck with their major french churches lately? i don’t mind if u laugh it just seems strange af.”
Stefan Molyneux, an InfoWars ally and verified Twitter user with nearly 400,000 followers, also just had a feeling the whole thing couldn’t be an “coincidence.”
“Suspecting arson at Notre Dame doesn’t indicate who could be responsible,” he wrote. “Some French churches were desecrated via Satanic symbols. A victim of clerical abuse could be seeking revenge. Communists also hate Christianity. We’ll see.”
Other famous French houses of worship, including the Saint-Suplice church in Paris, have been affected by fires in recent weeks. French authorities have offered no indication that they were intentionally set, or that the same actors were behind these individual incidents.
The Paris prosecutors’ office explicitly ruled out arson or terror-related motives as the cause of the Notre Dame Fire on Monday, according to the Associated Press. Police are instead investigating “involuntary destruction caused by fire,” the AP reported.
Some on the far-right avoided arson conspiracies, choosing instead to further Islamophobic attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Omar has recently been targeted by a flood of death threats after President Trump, conservative lawmakers and Fox pundits have tried to cast her as “unpatriotic” for speaking up about discrimination against Muslim Americans after 9/11.
Far-right instigators used the Notre Dame fire as an opportunity to pile on. First they questioned why Omar had not yet tweeted about the incident. By mid-afternoon, she had done so, calling the cathedral a “wonder” and sending prayers to Paris.
“Art and architecture have a unique ability to help us connect across our differences and bring people together in different ways,” Omar offered.
Raheem Kassam, Brexit promoter and former editor-in-chief of Breitbart’s London office, took issue with the “art and architecture” language.
The Cathedral containing the Crown of Thorns is just “art and architecture” to @IlhanMN. This is the same flippant attitude towards the sacred that ISIS displayed when destroying Palmyra. https://t.co/2V6FYboIj2
— Raheem Kassam (@RaheemKassam) April 15, 2019
“This is the same flippant attitude towards the sacred that ISIS displayed when destroying Palmyra,” Kassam tweeted.
“‘Art and architecture’ is one way to describe a 900 year old Christian Church that took 100 years to build and was seen as a monument to God,” Mike Cernovich (460,000 Twitter followers) wrote.
White nationalist figureheads like Richard Spencer also latched on to the fire, pointing to Notre Dame’s beauty as proof of European cultural superiority and its destruction as part of the broader threat to “the White man.”
“If the Nortre Dame fire serves to spur the White man into action–to sieze power in his countries, in Europe, in the world–then it will have served a glorious purpose and we will one day bless this catastrophe,” Spencer wrote in a tweet riddled with typos.
As of Tuesday morning, YouTube searches for “Notre Dame arson” and “Notre Dame Muslims” turned up dozens of results, some of which purported to show Muslims celebrating an intentionally set fire. Several of the videos had tens of thousands of views.