When the Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire in April, far-right pundits and extremists quickly spread groundless accusations that Muslim attackers started the blaze. Last week, a former far-right political candidate who had embraced that conspiracy theory went to a mosque in the French city of Bayonne and tried to set it on fire. He shot two Muslim men who confronted him.
Claude Sinké, an 84-year-old former local candidate for France’s far-right National Rally party, faces multiple charges including arson and attempted murder for the attack. He told investigators it was an act of revenge for the Notre Dame fire.
French civil rights groups have said that the nation’s politicians have failed to treat rising Islamophobia with the gravity it deserves. And although French President Emmanuel Macron called the Bayonne mosque shooting and arson a “heinous attack,” prosecutors did not charge Sinke with any terrorism offenses.
“These actions [amount to] a terrorist act because Claude Sinké wanted to kill Muslims for political and ideologic reasons,” said Méhana Mouhou, the lawyer representing the victims injured from the attack told HuffPost.
Mouhou said the victims, who are 78 and 74 years old, are still hospitalized. At least one of the victims is paralyzed in his right arm and right leg, the lawyer said.
Prosecutors have not yet detailed what sources led Sinké to believe the Notre Dame fire was set by Muslims. But in France and many other countries around the world, far-right pundits and politicians seeking personal and political gains have helped stoke disinformation campaigns that demonize Muslims, Jews and other minority groups, often resulting in violence.
Notre Dame Cathedral was undergoing renovation work when the fire broke out, and investigators identified an electrical short-circuit as the blaze’s likely cause. But conspiracy theories started metastasizing soon after news of the fire spread internationally.
A hoax Twitter account pretending to be CNN claimed that the fire was an act of terrorism, according to a BuzzFeed analysis, 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.