When the Notre Dame Cathedral , and far-right conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, who lives in England, seized on a quickly deleted and inaccurate tweet from a U.S. media commentator to write an InfoWars article suggesting someone deliberately set the blaze.
Other members of the international far-right echoed the InfoWars piece and added an explicitly Islamophobic message. Prominent anti-Muslim extremists such as American Pamela Geller, Canadian Faith Goldy, and England’s Katie Hopkins (who is frequently retweeted by President Donald Trump) pushed misleading or false information about the fire.
In the U.S., Fox News’ Tucker Carlson hosted a segment on his prime-time show that framed the fire as a warning of Christianity’s decline and featured a guest who brought up Islamist extremist attacks and Islam’s role in France. The French far-right tried to turn the tragedy into an attempt to vilify Muslims.
Conspiracy speculation didn’t go away when Paris prosecutors announced that no evidence had surfaced to suggest the fire was an attack ― that spurred some far-right French politicians and pundits to allege without proof that the authorities were hiding the blaze’s real cause. Anti-Muslim writer Eric Zemmour claimed on national television that if the government found out the fire was deliberately set, it would never admit it.
Sinké had expressed admiration for Zemmour on Facebook years before his attack on the mosque in Bayonne.
Human rights advocates contend that the conspiracy theories about the cathedral fire were able to thrive in France due to the deeply rooted anti-Muslim sentiment that has long existed in the country. Yasser Louati, the head of the Justice & Liberties For All Committee, an anti-discrimination group, told HuffPost that the National Rally party and its leader, Marine Le Pen, did little to nothing to squash the rumors that the fire was caused by Muslims.
“What is happening today is the normalization of Islamophobia in France that has been embraced by the whole French political spectrum, from parts of the far-left all the way to the far-right, and has made attacks against Muslims a non-event,” Louati said.
French politicians have been entangled recently in a bitter controversy, once again, over the Islamic headscarf. In September, a French education minister said he didn’t want Muslim women who wore hijabs to volunteer during school outings, igniting a national debate on policing Muslim women’s dress and the country’s anti-Muslim climate.
The situation only escalated when a far-right politician confronted a Muslim woman accompanying her son and other children on a school trip and demanded she remove her headscarf.
“You can’t spend a month demonizing Muslims and portraying them as a threat [to] national security, then be surprised when people take up arms against them,” Louati said.
The Bayonne mosque follows other attacks clearly stemming from Islamophobia. In 2017, the shooter who killed 6 people at a mosque in Quebec, Canada, constantly consumed Islamophobic media and told investigators he believed refugees from largely Muslim countries would kill his family.
Multiple violent extremists also have embraced the racist conspiracy that white people are being “replaced” as motivation for carrying out mass murder, including a white supremacist in Christchurch, New Zealand, who killed 51 people at two mosques earlier this year.”
Like those acts of extremism, the shooting and arson in Bayonne followed a similar pattern of divisive misinformation being spread against a backdrop of Islamophobia that typically goes unchecked. While victims mourn the aftermath of violence, those who have propagated these divisive campaigns are rarely held accountable and are often already moving onto the next conspiracy theory.