An interview with John Bowen
Clifford Armion: You've written about the French law against religious signs in schools. Has there ever been any similar attempt to prevent students from expressing their religious belief in the United States?
John Bowen: No there hasn't. In public schools in the United States as in the workplaces and as elsewhere, there is a very strong tradition of the freedom of religion, including freedom to practice one's religion openly, in public, as it says in the European Convention on Human Rights. We actually follow the European Convention on Human Rights probably closer than does France in this instance.
C.A.: Does that mean that it is not a controversial issue in the United States?
J.B.: It's not really a controversial issue, no.
C.A.: What do the feminists in the United States say about the headscarf, because after all it's not only about religion, the controversy is also about whether or not it is imposed on young women by their families.
J.B.: That's how it was constructed in France. Very few people would view it that way in the United States. As far as I can remember, there has been no criticism of wearing headscarves in France based on the notion that older men are forcing young women to wear the headscarf in schools. Even in France, in the Stasi Commission and their hearings, although allegations were made and anecdotes were thrown out, there was never any evidence produced to show that.
C.A.: You know that in France the word Laïcité is one of the cornerstones of the state and of the National Education. It's very difficult for us to conceive a public education that has aspects of religion in it. Here I'm not thinking about religious signs but rather about the teaching of creationism which is advocated by some branches of Christianity but also by some Muslim communities. In some states, the teaching of Darwin's theories was prohibited until the late 1960's when the Supreme Court ruled against such prohibitions. Since then there have been many attempts to teach Creationism or intelligent design in American public schools. Is creationism versus evolution still an issue in American schools and universities?
J.B.: Well I'm not sure that the official policy of the Roman Catholic Church is that creationism should be taught in public schools. I doubt that very much. It is true there is a huge problem in the United States. It doesn't come from religious establishments, it comes rather from parents who are against evolution and are for the teaching of creationism. As you undoubtedly know, in the United States, curricula are determined state by state, so local school districts have a great deal of power in determining what is taught and how it is taught in schools. So yes, it is an ongoing conflict.
C.A.: Do you think it is normal that local school boards should have the authority to promote creationism in schools?
J.B.: Well, I think it's normal that local school boards have the authority to determine the curricula because that is how the system works in the United States. I don't think it is in any way a good thing to teach creationism in public schools. It is one of our major problems and it is very difficult for our national leaders to come out openly against those practices.
C.A.: Has the federal government considered taking measures to prevent this?
J.B.: In France it is difficult to realise that but in the United States the federal government has very little power over education. Almost everything depends on state measures and local school board measures.
C.A.: Finally I can't resist asking you about that preacher from Florida who recently threatened to burn the Quran. I was amazed by the considerable stir it created in the media and the public opinion. What do you make of this?
J.B.: That's what he wanted: to have a stir in the media and the public opinion. This is a very very small church. On good days he got about sixty people. Half of them where his brothers and sisters and children and grandchildren. So it was really a very small affair and he was immediately denounced by the other evangelical churches in the area. This is a very small minority but it revived the flames of anti-Islam which are strong in the United States, as they are in Europe.
C.A.: Do you think that the media are responsible for this? As you said, he was just an insignificant pastor with a very small congregation and yet he had such a huge echo in the media.
J.B.: The media and politicians are together to blame for this recrudescence of anti-Islamic sentiment. They work together. The media want to sell newspapers or encourage people to watch their television stations. Politicians want people to vote for them and now a lot of that vote getting is to be had in the far right. You see leaders of a number of countries in Europe, not in the United States, coming up with more and more right wing, anti-minority policies and discourses. The media feeds on this. This week's L'Express had a cover story on Islam in Europe which was an entirely negative thing. It was the same old clichés recycled: terrorists at home, Jihadism on the rise, this sort of things that we've seen for decades now. That's a very bad thing. I really think that they should reconsider the way they portray Islam, given the sensitivity of these subjects in Europe.
Pour citer cette ressource :
John Bowen, Clifford Armion, "An interview with John Bowen", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), octobre 2010. Consulté le 01/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-americain/problematiques-contemporaines/an-interview-with-john-bowen