The front pages of Tuesday’s papers were awash with images of France’s iconic cathedral ablaze. From The Telegraph’s emotive “Paris weeps for its beloved lady” to The Sun’s less than poetic “Notre Doom”, the almost apocalyptic pictures were a field day for editors everywhere.
Overnight a story of despair transformed into one of hope and renewal: with over €500 million pledged to the restoration of the site in a matter of hours, France once again was a nation united through tragedy.
With the knowledge that everything was going to be alright, columnists everywhere got the green light to start offering their own perspectives on the fire. From The Spectator gleefully calling it symbolic of Macron’s premiership, to the Daily Express excitedly reminding us the Palace of Westminster could be next; by 5pm we had a full on dick measuring contest on our hands for who could offer the hottest take on the tragedy (no irony intended).
Fox News commentator Glenn Beck offered some particularly cretinous thoughts on the subject: “If this was started by Islamists, I don’t think you’ll find out about it.” Cheers Glenn, insightful take there – albeit an incredibly damaging conspiracy theory. What Beck didn’t know, probably unaware that life existed beyond the Fox newsroom and his nearest Burger King, was that the Muslim world experienced a second fire on Monday as well.
Al-Aqsa, considered to be the third holiest site in Islam, was also set ablaze, in an event that went seemingly unreported in the European press.
Dating to the eighth century, Al-Aqsa makes Notre Dame look like the new kid on the block of the spiritual world. The domed ceiling of the mosque is thought to be where the prophet Muhammed ascended into heaven – 200 years before the first bricks were even laid in Paris. However, let’s avoid overly simplistic comparisons between the two tragedies (incidentally, the only coverage Al-Aqsa received), but rather ask how two very similar events could be reported so unequally.
No one would doubt the fire at Notre Damn was worse, Al-Aqsa being extinguished by authorities in a fraction of the time, and the damage being far less severe than in Paris. The significance of the site in the Islamic world must surely warrant some international coverage though, a comparative event at Christian site would never be so poorly reported on.
The two events expose our ignorance of world heritage outside of our comfort zone. Every one of us could name St Peter’s in the Vatican, St. Paul’s in London, or St. Basil’s in Moscow, but as soon as we leave our European bubble our knowledge of the world’s cultural heritage sharply declines. It’s not surprising when from primary school onwards we’re taught the Tudors, the Battle of Hastings, and the French Revolution – all remarkable events, but a localised fraction of our global history. Sites which are at the centre of socio-cultural life in non-Christian countries we remain ignorant of, taught through a curriculum which regurgitates the same history learnt a generation prior, too afraid or simply too lazy to expand beyond the same handful of topics.
If as a European community we can raise half a billion euros for the restoration of one religious building overnight, its not much to ask for us to be better informed on another.