Fires had barely begun to erupt on the roof of the Notre Dame cathedral before talk about the “real” cause had begun to swirl. Government false-flags, Yellow Vests, and especially the proximity of the fire’s start and the French president’s speech on the results of the Grand Débat produced a great many theories about the French government’s alleged involvement in this developing catastrophe.
Soon, however, as news of the fire quickly spread outside of France and into the American and Middle Eastern media spheres, a new dynamic began to emerge. Despite assurances from officials and reporters that the fire had been an accident due to ongoing renovations, a narrative of a “clash of civilisations” began to emerge from the burning wreckage. On one side, there were declarations of God’s will being made manifest, and on the other, accusations of deliberate provocation by an invading force, one that is bent on the destruction of western civilisation.
A Righteous Retribution
The response from supporters of jihadi organizations was immediate. Images of the church burning, and video of the spire collapsing in particular, quickly began making the rounds in Telegram channels and in Twitter conversations.
At the more conciliatory end of the conversational spectrum, many Islamists asked where the outrage had been when mosques of the same age, or even older than Notre Dame, such as the ones bulldozed in China, had been destroyed.
In some ISIS supporter circles, the reaction was more complex and restrained. Lena, a German PMC-employed researcher who asked to have her last name withheld, was surprised by the reaction. “A few of them started to celebrate the fire with just glee […], [but] by now the others have reined them in.” The Telegram group, mostly filled with North African and European supporters of ISIS with only a few members currently in Syria, had one member argue that the sight of a church burning would “remove people further from the truth of Allah.” Some argued that after France was conquered by the Caliphate, Notre Dame should not be destroyed like others had been arguing, but should be converted into a mosque. However, Lena did note that this group’s reaction was an outlier, as many other ISIS supporter groups reacted to the fire with joy and jubilation.
On the other end of the discussion, jihadi fighters and their groups’ supporters responded to the fire with glee.
Influential Salafi cleric Abu Qatada wrote a piece on the history of Notre Dame and its relations to Muslims, in response to what he calls the short memories of those who lamented the fire that “begin and end with Victor Hugo and his story.” Abu Qatada goes into detail about how The Third Crusade was declared from Notre Dame, then incomplete, by Patriarch Heraclius, and how this declaration brought together European empires against the Caliphate. While not going into explicit detail about how righteous the fire was as some of his colleagues would go on to do, Abu Qatada remarks at the end that the fire is perhaps “a good omen.”
Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the spiritual mentor of Abu Mus’ab az-Zarqawi, in an answer to a question about standing in solidarity with Christians after the fire in Notre Dame, answered in the negative. While Abu Qatada was comparatively almost measured in answering the question on whether or not the burning of Notre Dame was an undeniable good, al-Maqdisi doubled down. al-Maqdisi argued that Muslims should “take joy” in the burning of the church, and asked that followers of the Islamic faith view the burning of churches as a “good deed.”
Abu Umar, a white British foreign fighter affiliated with the “Incite the Believers” jihadi coalition, compared the vastly different reactions by Twitter users to the destruction of the Great Mosque of al-Nouri during the Battle of Mosul. He went on to remark that he is happy to see when anything “remotely French” is destroyed, as penance for “colonialism. For North Africa, Afghanistan and Syria. For [the] treatment of Muslims in France.”
A Bosnian foreign fighter with HTS, in a Telegram post with the video of the Notre Dame’s spire burning and collapsing, thanked God, “the Almighty and Wise,[…] who broke the cross in the middle of France,” evoking apocalyptic imagery of the prophesied return of Jesus during the end times, who the Prophet Muhammad said would come to “break the cross, kill the pigs, and abolish the Jizya.” The Bosnian jihadi also criticized, in a common thread, the response of Europe, “hissing and screaming because of one church”, while there was “nothing” in response to the “thousands and thousands of mosques around the world” that were burned down as well. They later go on to wish that “God would burn all the churches on the Earth’s surface.”
In the vast majority of ISIS circles, the response to the burning of the Notre Dame church was similar, but arguably more pointed.
Alongside expressions of unabashed glee at the sight of the burning of the cathedral, ISIS supporters created propaganda posters to celebrate the ongoing inferno, and to threaten France once more with future attacks, as they have done in the past. In one image, supporters of the group threatened French people to “wait for the next,” with images of Notre Dame in flames alongside.
On Twitter, ISIS supporters again repeated claims of directed retribution straight from the Heavens, one writing in a post, “They bombed the Muslims in the cities of the Islamic State and eradicated them with the ugliest types of weapons, and they thought that they have won and defeated the jihad. They didn’t know that they brought death upon themselves. They didn’t know that they opened the gates of hell, which will close only on their burnt corpses.”
On Facebook, ISIS supporters specifically name-dropped the final battle that ISIS partook in, Baghouz, as a point of comparison. One supporter wrote “You [France] are a sinner, and what is the fire if not an army that came from Baghouz to take a right which was plundered.” Another supporter, in similar language, hoped ISIS had actually had a hand in the fire’s lighting, writing, “The burning of the Notre Dame church in Paris is an answer to the mosque incident in New Zealand.”
However, as firefighters began to beat back the fire and artifacts inside were saved, the response became much more muted. According to Lena, bringing up the example of one Telegram group of ISIS supporters, one user posted tweets showing the sacraments had been saved, but was entirely ignored by other users. In other instances, users still celebrated the fact that while the church may not have entirely burned down, it would take “decades” to rebuild.
Meanwhile, just as Islamists and jihadis alike celebrated the burning of Notre Dame, on the other side of the aisle, Christian conservatives, nationalists, and white supremacists, all dug themselves in against what they viewed as the true culprit of the fire: not an accident, but arson. Not just run-of-the-mill arson either. To them, it was an intentional, Muslim-perpetrated act of terror against western civilization itself.
A Muslim False Flag
The initial reports of arson were propagated extremely early on, before the sun had even begun to set in France. Fake news accounts on Twitter, some claiming to be “satires” of CNN, posted pictures of the Notre Dame fire with captions saying it had been proven that it was an Islamic terror attack. At the time of those tweets, French prosecutors had said the exact opposite, that this was an accident related to renovations, and not anything intentional.
Conspiracy theories spread by rumors were then amplified by sites like InfoWars, who quickly spread the theory that this fire had indeed not just been mere arson, but a Muslim terrorist attack. InfoWars figures such as Mike Cernovich, and those InfoWars-adjacent such as Jack Posobiec of One America News Network, began drawing connections between the fire and recent attacks on Catholic churches around France. It should be noted that while there have been several attacks on Catholic churches in France since the beginning of 2018, figures thrown around by websites such as Breitbart of the timescale being only a single week are false, and many of the attacks have been solely acts of vandalism.
Soon, accusations of a Muslim cause for the fire began to reach mainstream outlets. Some only implied connections, such as RT that only drew connections to previous attacks as Cernovich and Posobiec had done. Others, like certain hosts on Fox News, fought against guests who had been brought on the program to discuss the fire, such as Philippe Karsenty. Karsenty, a French media analyst who had been convicted of slandering Muhammad al-Durrah, a murdered Palestinian, was being interviewed by Fox anchor Shep Smith when Karsenty compared the fire to 9/11, before going on to say, “Of course, you will hear the story of the politically—the political correctness, which will tell you it’s probably an accident.” Smith asked Karsenty to provide evidence before abruptly ending the interview.
As the accusations of arson began to grow from twitter rumors, they began to take the shape of ideological rhetoric. This grand narrative was now beginning to be spun about the Notre Dame fire representing the tipping point, the penultimate moment of the clash of civilizations between Islam and Christianity.
Despite this pushback from certain Fox News hosts, the claims of Islamic terror began to make their way through notable conservative figures, both beloved by mainstream Republicans and those who have had accusations of white nationalism lobbied against them. Rush Limbaugh, whose show is the most listened-to talk radio program in the United States, mirrored Karsenty’s words in comparing the fire to 9/11, remarking, “What do you mean, you don’t know why? That’s like saying we don’t know why “some people did something” on 9/11.” One oftentime guest of Limbaugh’s show, Mark Steyn, a proponent of the “Eurabia” conspiracy theory, went on Tucker Carlson’s show the night of the fire to bring up the spread of Islam in France, claiming that Notre Dame’s neighborhood was now a Muslim one, and even going so far as to claim that there was “no sense of Christianity” beyond its walls.
Richard Spencer, a self-avowed white nationalist, spoke on the subject of the Notre Dame fire, and remarked while he could not speculate as to whether or not it was an accident, still regarded it as incredibly significant. “The symbolism is so extreme,” he says in an interview, “this is not just another terror attack, one of a dozen and we kind of forget about it [in] the next two weeks, I think that this is a profound and traumatic event that we’re going to be talking about for a long time and I think it serves as a, again, a kind of turning point moment in we view the history of Europe.”
Glenn Beck, a top-rated radio host and owner of TheBlaze, echoed the sentiments of Spencer, saying of the symbolism of Notre Dame, “this would be like us burning the White House. What is iconic like this? This is their World Trade Centre moment,” before then going on to say, “if this was done by terrorists I think that they will keep it quiet because I just don’t think that Macron in France wants that internal fight.”
Besides those theories and mentions making their way into the mainstream, the most violent and pointed rhetoric about civilizational warfare has been limited to conservative internet forums. On the site 4chan, in threads about the fire, many users posted photos of Crusaders and other Christian figures, railing against multiculturalism. Users speculated about the fire being revenge for New Zealand, an attack driven by a hope for existential religious warfare, in a ponderance similar to the hopes of some ISIS supporters. Others said it wasn’t in response to much, but par for the course for Muslim history, and made similar statements as Beck that any Islamist involvement would be covered up by Macron. One user, in lambasting virtually all other sides of the discussion, said, “Fuck the false god of multiculturalism, fuck the false god of democracy, fuck Marxism, fuck the UN, fuck the EU, fuck Macron, fuck the “turn the other cheek” version of Christianity and fuck Islam.”
As the stories begin to roll in, and rhetoric continues to build, the response by extremists to the Notre Dame fire is likely going to be a case study for years to come. The burning of an symbol of the West, arguably unmatched by many others, was always going to produce severe responses, whether it be unmatched jubilation or an unquenchable need for vengeance. Although it is pained to say, as the theories continue to build, and mainstream outlets continue to propagate them without total push-back, the line, that being the tipping point, from unfounded rumors turning to undoable action, becomes closer and thinner.