The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Notre Dame fire ignites the West’s far right

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A strange — though not altogether surprising — thing happened in the shadow of Monday’s tragedy. As many around the world watched an iconic cathedral in Paris go up in flames, others immediately set about trying to spark new fires. On both sides of the Atlantic, denizens of the far right took to social media to grind their culture-warring axes, locating in the calamity a parable for the political moment — or, at least, their understanding of it.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson, a popular anchor accused by critics of openly embracing white nationalism in his broadcasts, said the Notre Dame fire was in “some ways a metaphor for the decline of Christianity in Europe.” His guest, far-right commentator Mark Steyn, took the opportunity to declare that “Christendom was in retreat,” the French were “godless,” and Muslim immigrants were taking over French society.

Without any evidence suggesting arson, some pundits immediately concluded that the blaze must have been the work of Islamists or leftists. Frank Gaffney, a once-fringe anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist whose views have gained increasing traction within the Trump administration and Republican Party, issued a statement linking the fire to attacks on “Christian houses of worship” in France and a supposedly Muslim-led campaign against Christianity.

“This pattern of attacks is a symptom of a Sharia-supremacist assault on Christianity in France, often enabled by the country’s intolerant secular left,” he said. “It suggests that the kind of persecution that is now afflicting some 300 million followers of Christ elsewhere around the world is coming full force to Europe as well.”

The same gesture was made by Alice Weidel, a leader of Germany’s far-right AfD party, who wrote a tweet connecting Notre Dame’s burning to a spate of attacks on Christian sites in France. For a party that regularly rages against Muslim immigrants and the threat posed by Islam to Germany’s native culture, the subtext was clear.

French authorities do not suspect foul play, but they are investigating the circumstances that led to the fire, including interviewing members of five different companies that had been enlisted in renovation projects around Notre Dame. Firefighters and rescue workers managed to save most of the cathedral’s most cherished artworks and relics. Its famous stained-glass windows are still largely intact. French officials vowed to rebuild and repair the damaged structure, and wealthy tycoons have pledged hundreds of millions in euros in support.

Yet for a small group of conservative thinkers, the fire itself marked a kind of irredeemable collapse. Steyn, speaking on Fox News, wondered what the point of rebuilding the cathedral was since, as he put it, the secular French no longer identify with the “soul” of the place. Others groused over the decades of supposed neglect looming over the site. “Civilization only ever hangs by a thread,” right-wing British commentator Douglas Murray wrote. “Today one of those threads seems to have frayed, perhaps snapped.”

Smoke clouds engulfed the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris April 15. Crews announced the blaze had been extinguished after battling flames into the night. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post, Photo: Cyril Zannettacci/VU for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Ben Shapiro, an influential American right-wing pundit with a huge following on social media, lamented “a magnificent monument to Western civilization collapsing” and then followed up with tweets that insisted upon the “Judeo-Christian heritage” embodied by Notre Dame and the duty of all to refamiliarize “ourselves with the philosophy and religious principles that built it.” Critics quickly noted the brutal treatment meted out on French Jews for centuries while the cathedral stood. Others suggested Shapiro’s invocation of “Judeo-Christian” values were in this instance simply a euphemism for “white.”

Richard Spencer, an American neofascist credited with coining the term “alt-right” for the online ecosystem of far-right voices in the West, spoke more plainly. He tweeted his hope that the fire consuming Notre Dame would “spur the White man into action — to sieze [sic] power in his countries, in Europe, in the world” and, if so, the blaze “will have served a glorious purpose and we will one day bless this catastrophe.”

You can forgive Americans for their sense of shock at seeing an iconic structure far older than their own nation suddenly enveloped in smoke and flame. “Especially to citizens of the New World, the old one can look like it was chiseled in stone at the dawn of time,” The Post’s Griff Witte wrote. “Its cathedrals, castles, palaces and opera houses form a sturdy and permanent-seeming backdrop in a world increasingly dominated by ephemera.”

But the far-right obsession with Notre Dame as an eternal lodestone of “Western” civilization is a distortion of history. Its very “Westernness” is a fuzzy construct: Historian Juan Cole noted that the French Gothic tradition is deeply shaped not only by Greek pagan thought, but by the influence of Islamic architecture likely encountered in Moorish Spain. Cole gestures to the migration of artistic styles from the other side of the Mediterranean: “Some art historians have argued for the pointed arch as a Muslim development of a Sasanian Iranian form, which was then taken over into the Gothic cathedral.”

Whatever the case, for the French, the cathedral brims with national meaning that transcends its religious origins. And for academics, there’s little immutable about a structure that has gone through myriad transformations since its construction. “Through the centuries, it’s been updated, amended, degraded and defiled,” Witte wrote about Notre Dame. “The spire that crashed so spectacularly on Monday was only added relatively recently, just a century and a half ago, following a period of profound neglect.”

The skylines of myriad world cities boast the spires and bell towers of renovated structures once laid low by devastating fires, earthquakes or war. “The towering cathedrals that dot Europe’s landscape are mostly monuments to resilience, testaments to what you could build after fire claimed what had been built before,” medievalist Matthew Gabriele wrote. “The radiant stained glass and soaring vaults that we see today were often direct responses to tragedy and disaster.”

Perhaps for that reason, leading officials on the continent don’t share the same apocalyptic view as the West’s far right. “It’s not the end of the world,” European Council President Donald Tusk told reporters.

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