Saturday, December 13, 2014

Video: Thousands in DC Protest Police Killings

Video Report - U.S.A. - Sharpton: 'We Need National Legislation'

Video - USA: Brooklyn Bridge SHUT DOWN by anti-police brutality protesters

Marchers in Washington, New York, Boston protest police killings

Thousands marched in Washington, New York and Boston on Saturday to protest killings of unarmed black men by police officers.
Organizers said the marches were among the largest in the recent wave of protests against the killings of black males by officers in Ferguson, Missouri; New York; Cleveland; and elsewhere. The protests were peaceful, although police in Boston said they arrested 23 people who tried to block a highway.

Decisions by grand juries to return no indictments against the officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York have put police treatment of minorities back on the national agenda.

"We're going to keep the light on Mike Brown ... on all of the victims. The only way you make roaches run is to keep the light on," said civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose National Action Network organized the Washington rally.

Sharpton urged Congress to pass legislation that would allow federal prosecutors to take over cases involving police violence.

Protesters from around the country gathered at Freedom Plaza, a few blocks from the White House, then marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to rally near the white-domed U.S. Capitol.

Marchers, who included many parents with children, chanted "No justice, no peace, no racist police" and "Hands up, don't shoot." Protesters carried signs that said "All men are created equal" and "Black lives matter."

The Washington protest included relatives of Eric Garner and Akai Gurley, who were killed by New York police; Trayvon Martin, slain by a Florida neighborhood watchman in 2012; Brown; and others.

"Wow, what a sea of people," said Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden. "If they don't see this and make a change, I don't know what we're going to do."

In Missouri, a prosecutor on Saturday made public documents related to the probe into Brown's killing, saying his office had inadvertently held them back.

Protesters gathered in a one-block section of Pennsylvania Avenue and nearby public space, although organizers estimated the crowd at 40,000 to 50,000 people. A police spokesman declined to provide a crowd estimate, citing department policy, and said there had been no arrests.

After the rally, some protesters marched through downtown Washington, briefly closing some streets, police said on Twitter.

In Boston, a march with hundreds of protesters passed by at the Suffolk County jail near an entrance to Interstate 93. Jail inmates cheered and banged on cell windows as protesters passed.

Protesters tried to push through police lines near the highway entrance. The Massachusetts State Police said 23 people were arrested for disorderly conduct as demonstrators attempted to block the highway.

The New York march drew a mostly young, ethnically diverse crowd that was loud and peaceful and headed north up Manhattan's Fifth Avenue from Washington Square Park. Marchers then circled back to end the protest with hands raised at police headquarters in lower Manhattan.

Protesters chanted "How do you spell racist? NYPD" and some taunted police guarding the march route.

"The culture in America is embedded in slavery, in the courts and the politics, and the culture has to change," said marcher Kayode Leonard, 33, from Manhattan.

Observers estimated the march size at 20,000 to 30,000 protesters. Police gave no estimate of crowd size and reported no arrests.

U.S. - Whites get wealthier, while Blacks and Hispanics lag further behind

By Tami Luhby

The Great Recession hit all Americans hard, but only whites have seen their wealth rise during the recent recovery.

And that's widening the already massive wealth gap between whites and other racial and ethnic groups to near record levels.
White households' median wealth ticked up to $141,900 in 2013, up 2.4% from three years earlier, according to a Pew Research Center report released Friday.
Net worth for black households dropped by a third during that time to $11,000. Hispanic families experienced a 14% decline in wealth to $13,700.
Whites have 13 times the net worth of blacks, the largest wealth gap that's existed since George H.W. Bush was president in 1989. The ratio of net worth between whites and Hispanics now stands at more than 10, the widest it has been since 2001.
Much of the focus in recent years has been the growth in income inequality, with the Top 1% capturing most of the post-Recession gains. But wealth inequality is also troubling.
There are several reasons for the growing gap, says Pew, citing Federal Reserve Bank data.
Minority households' median income fell 9% between 2010 and 2013, compared to a drop of only 1% for whites. So minority households may not have been able to sock away as much or may have had to use more of their savings to cover expenses.
Also, the financial markets have rebounded much more than housing in recent years. Since whites are more likely to own stocks, they have seen a bigger wealth boost.
Real estate, on the other hand, makes up a big chunk of blacks' and Hispanics' net worth. But homeownership declined faster among minorities than whites between 2010 and 2013.
Only 47.4% of minorities were homeowners in last year. But 73.9% of whites owned homes.
It takes some digging to find these racial and ethnic disparities, which are masked when looking at the nation's overall median wealth. For all households, median wealth slipped slightly to $82,300 last year, down only 1.1%.

Video - USA: Rights acitivists descend on DC, prepare for march to the Capitol

Video - Switzerland: Police battle flames with water cannon

Video - Spain: Activists wield DEAD ANIMALS at equality protest

Video - Thousands gathering in Washington to protest police killings

Comrade Fidel Castro recognised

While we in Pakistan are still conflicted about Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize, there is another world beyond Oslo. China’s version of the Nobel Peace Prize has this year been awarded to revolutionary icon and former leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro for his “important contributions” to world peace. Castro, who retired from office after a near fatal illness in 2006, enjoys enormous prestige and respect all over the world. Since his retirement, he has contributed regular articles to the press and written books, apart from campaigning with leaders and groups worldwide to eliminate nuclear weapons, still the greatest threat to the future of mankind. Fidel bested more than 20 nominees, including South Korean President Park Guen-Hye, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. He was selected by nine judges out of a group of 16 experts and scholars. China’s alternative to the Nobel is the Confucius Peace Prize, awarded since 2010 to those who have made contributions to advancing world peace. Cynics in the west are dismissive of the Confucius Prize as merely China’s response to the Nobel being awarded in the past to political dissidents in China. Such cynicism also attended the Lenin Peace Prize in the past, an award instituted by the former Soviet Union. The problem lies in one’s definition of ‘peace’ and how certain contributions have either enhanced or retarded the achievement of this desirable goal.

The uninformed may be inclined to question how a revolutionary leader like Fidel Castro, who overthrew the Batista dictatorship in 1958 through leading a guerrilla struggle initially based in the Sierra Maestra Mountains of Cuba to usher in the country’s new path and journey to socialism, could be ‘elevated’ to the status of a peace campaigner. But the fact is that fighting and winning against the forces of dictatorship, repression, exploitation and imperialist interests was and still is the best way to contribute to a peaceful and progressive future for mankind as a whole. The fact that the Soviet Union imploded after 74 years of communism, taking Eastern European socialism with it and plunging its allies such as Cuba into deep economic and social turmoil, takes nothing away from oppressed humanity’s desire for freedom from exploitation of man by man, and progress towards the full flowering of the individual as the necessary condition for the full flowering and liberty of society as a whole. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and what some label ‘actually existing socialism’ in 1991, the received wisdom from the dominant west has been, ‘There is no alternative’ to neoliberal capitalism, the free market and bourgeois democracy. Francis Fukuyama and others have sealed the fate of mankind forever by positing the triumph of capitalism as the realisation of Hegel’s ‘Idea’ in the form of the present political, economic and social dispensation. Ah, but there’s the rub. The system so beloved of the west’s rulers has proved tricky and unmanageable, much like it was even before its global triumph. The 2008 economic collapse and current recession have destroyed all the utopian claims of this being the best of all possible worlds when billions, even in the west, are jobless, hungry, and without shelter. Capitalism’s inherent contradictions, as critiqued by the founders of socialism, and as they are on display currently, promise a dark and uncertain future for the billions of people all over the world who are not part of the super wealthy one percent.

Fidel Castro may have come to power through the barrel of a gun, but the Batista dictatorship left him and his comrades no choice. For years, Fidel, a lawyer by training, fought within the political system in Cuba for democracy and rights. When it became obvious that the dictatorship was unyielding, brutal and rapacious in alliance with US interests, Fidel and his comrades were forced to pick up the gun and through the twists and turns of the armed struggle (in which they faced annihilation more than once), they succeeded in freeing Cuba from local dictatorship beholden to big business interests in the US. This breach of Washington’s control of its ‘backyard’ (Latin America) changed the history of the region, and arguably the world, in ways that endure despite the difficulties faced by the Cuban people because of the embargo and sanctions imposed by the US on the tiny island nation for over 50 years. Fidel’s record in office speaks for the solidarity he and the people of Cuba exhibited in the past in coming to the aid of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and in their present devotion and dedication to the highest principles mankind can aspire to by being in the frontline of help to struggling and stricken people all over the world. Cuban doctors were the first to come to Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, and are today in the forefront of the fight against Ebola in Africa and elsewhere. Cuba’s contributions under Fidel to the peace of the world, defined as opposition to domination by the big powers and their rapacious habits, shines loud and clear above the global horizon and provides inspiration still to new generations striving for a better, more peaceful world.

In-depth report reveals Qatar’s willful blindness to financing of global terrorist groups

A report released this week demonstrates how Qatar plays a double game with the West – funding terrorist groups throughout the region while acting like an ally and responsible player on the world stage.
The report, “Qatar and Terror Finance: Negligence,” is the first in a three-part series by The Foundation for Defense of Democracies and its Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance.

It links Qatari financiers with the leaders of Islamic State; al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, Nusra Front; al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula; Somalia’s al-Shabaab; the Taliban; and Pakistan’s core al-Qaida and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

It names over 20 people who have been blacklisted by the US or the UN on terrorism- financing charges but have not been dealt with by Qatari authorities.

“Qatar’s terror-finance problem is the result of weak enforcement,” the report says. “It reflects a serious lack of political will and represents a grave threat to US interests.”

“Qatar’s performance in the fight against terror finance tests the notion that it is a reliable friend and ally.”

The report’s author, David Andrew Weinberg, a specialist on Gulf affairs and a senior fellow at the Washington- based think tank, told The Jerusalem Post that besides to Hamas, large funds are heading to Nusra Front and to Islamic State.

“On Tuesday, 24 members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee called on the US administration to sanction any government in the future that provides material or financial support to Hamas,” noted Weinberg.

“Qatar and Turkey are in Congress’s sights, and they apparently run the risk of being called state sponsors of terror – a category that under US law involves serious penalties, such as a possible arms embargo for enabling terror against Israeli civilians by backing Hamas,” he said.

“Qatar has a long history of being a location for funding al-Qaida in Iraq, which later became Islamic State,” said Weinberg, adding: “It would not have been possible for Islamic State to do what it is doing today without the assistance it got out of Qatar when the group was still affiliated with al-Qaida.”

Prominent Iraqi terrorism financiers have been given immunity by Qatar, asserts Weinberg.

Some US officials say that Doha is the region’s leader in giving donations to terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq, notes the report.

Asked if the US government is likely to act more strongly against Qatar’s negligence, Weinberg responded, “The executive branch in America has muted its criticisms of Qatar over the last two administrations because Qatar hosts an important US base.”

“The obvious answer is to consider moving the base, something I have been told George W. Bush asked his government to look into during his presidency,” he said.

Asked whether this and the abusive working conditions of workers preparing for the FIFA 2022 World Cup, to be held in the Gulf state, could lead to the country losing the games, Weinberg responded that Abdulrahman al-Nuaymi, whom the US government has accused of giving millions of dollars to al-Qaida and Islamic State’s forerunner in Iraq, was reportedly a former president of the Qatar Football Association.

“Nuaymi received a lifetime achievement award from the Qatar Olympic Committee when the head of that committee was the current emir of Qatar,” he said.

Secular Education Under Attack in Turkey

Education in Turkey has become one of the front lines in a battle between secularists and the religious to win over future generations.
Several proposals by Turkey's National Education Council have thrust education into the center of political debate. The main opposition Republican People’s Party is accusing the council of dragging the country into the past with its proposal that schools teach the now-defunct Ottoman language used during Turkey’s imperial past.
But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has strongly attacked critics.
"There are those who do not want the Ottoman language to be learned and taught," he said, " ... but whether they want it or not, Ottoman will be learned and taught in this country."
The National Education Council, which advises Turkey's Ministry of Education, called for compulsory religious classes in high schools to be doubled to two hours a week and extended to all ages. The council also said nursery schools should have what it calls "values education."
More religious schools
Political columnist Cengiz Aktar of the Zaman Today newspaper, who also teaches at Suleyman Sah University, said the reforms fit well with Erdogan’s objectives.
"For years, Erdogan wanted to create a new, pious youth, ethically correct according to the canons of his mind and his lecture of Islam, and he is just putting this into practice," Aktar said.
Under Erdogan’s rule as prime minister, religious schools, known as imam hatips, have dramatically increased, from 65,000 children being enrolled in 2004 to more than one million today.
The schools have 13 hours a week of religious training and strict segregation of boys and girls. In the past couple of years, many secular schools have been converted to imam hatips, in many cases with little warning to parents.
"It was a big surprise," one mother said. The director promised the school would not be changed, but at registration he was gone and the school had been converted to a religious school. "There is nothing we can do," she said.
In Istanbul, there have been protests over the conversions. But Erdogan argues that religious education offers an antidote to the societal ills of drug addiction and racism.
A senior member of the Religious Affairs Directorate, the state body that administers the Islamic faith in Turkey, claims secularism is undermining religious life in Turkish society.
Building 'more conservative society'
An expert on religion and the state at Istanbul’s Dogus University, Istar Gozaydin, said the government is changing Turkish society.
"The Presidency of Religious Affairs is being more active in hospitals, women’s shelters, in other parts, etc.," she said. "So apparently a more conservative society is being constructed. However, there is not much respect for the freedom [of] religion."
The Presidency of Religious Affairs, generally referred to simply as the Diyanet, was established after the secular state came into power and abolished the caliphate in Turkey.  
A recent government survey found that nearly 70 percent of Turkish people consider themselves very sensitive to religion. But critics have accused the Islamist-rooted ruling AK party and the president of wanting to end the Turkish secular state, established in 1923.
Observers warn that education looks set to be the center of this increasingly bitter debate, with children caught in the middle.

Video - China marks Nanjing Massacre

Russia Is Using the Past to Explain the Present

Gleb Kuznetsov

In his address to the Federal Assembly last week, President Vladimir Putin turned again to his favorite "historical" method of reasoning to explain to the Russian people what is happening in the country and the world.
In his opinion, Russia has a "right" to Crimea because it has "historically" been part of "sacred" Russian soil, and the West has "always" pursued a policy of containment against Russia.
According to this view, the current situation with sanctions is not a unique "phenomenon," but just one more episode in the epic, generations-long confrontation between Russia and the West. Accordingly, it makes no sense to attempt to identify the specific causes of the problem and try to resolve them through compromise. Instead, Russians should understand that historically it has always been like this and accept the inevitable casualties, conflict and confrontation.
This approach often elicits reactions of surprise and disbelief. How can anyone interpret current developments in the narrow context of events that happened as much as 1,000 years ago — if they ever happened at all, or in the way historians report them? However, it is the understanding of this so-called "history" that lies at the root of the consciousness and world view of today's Russian elite.
The collapse of communist values followed by the deep, well-founded and sincere dissatisfaction felt by all strata of Russian society concerning the ideological vacuum of the 1990s led to Russian politicians feeling somewhat ridiculous or even embarrassed about trying to hold a genuine dialogue about human values.
At the same time, neither Putin nor his official commentators have ever defined what constitutes the "traditional Russian values" that have become the leitmotif of public political discourse in recent years. Apparently, the very fact that they exist is supposed to be enough in itself.
But it remains unclear as to how meaningful and substantive those values are, or whether they are more superficial and confined to mere ritual.
For example, Putin adopted the Russian Orthodox religion as one of the supposed "traditional Russian values" at a very mature age. In the same way, Soviet-era party members were considered "good communists" not if they espoused sincere belief in the ideals of Marx and the other "fathers of communism," but if they attended party meetings and rallies regularly. Today's display of religious conviction is no different.
However, politics is based on abstract ideas, and when a leader does not have a strong belief in God and does not center his policy on commonly accepted human values, events themselves become the predominating paradigm. Thus history — with its limitless storehouse of events, real and imagined — becomes the lens through which modern Russian politicians view the present and envision the future.
In the absence of a moral code, instructive stories from the past occupy the same place for Russia's political class as God does in the U.S. political system and "Man in the Age of Enlightenment" does for the European.
Russia's ruling elite turns to history as a reference point in the same way that politicians in the time of Oliver Cromwell turned to the Old Testament. Taken together, these historical parables or proverbs provide real-life examples illustrating how to behave in any situation. However, these stories are completely devoid of any Christian or spirituality based love for humanity. To the contrary, they are filled with examples of violence, war and efforts to achieve goals at any cost and through any sacrifice.
What's more, Russian leaders can delve into this "limitless storehouse of history" and either extract or invent whatever story or interpretation of events that serves their needs at the moment and declare it part of the sacred heritage of Great Russia.
At first glance, that might seem to pose a danger to international stability and even to Russia's nearest neighbors. In fact, it is more an attempt by Russian leaders to justify their current position through stories and myths about cities that have long been swept from the face of the Earth and that today hold interest to archeologists alone. And it is probably a sign of the underlying self-doubt the Russian elite feel rather than of any rock-hard confidence in their own strength or that they are right.
At a seminar on Russia's domestic policy, Deputy Foreign Minister Vasily Nebenzya mentioned one more complaint. "Western politicians," he said, "are merely officials who are forgotten after three or four years." Such comments are apparently an attempt to explain to Russians that the ideal politician is more like an Old Testament prophet or such historical leaders as the Holy Prince Vladimir of Kiev.
But is this the "aggressive" approach Westerners so often accuse Russian diplomats of pursuing? It is probably just the opposite — yet another attempt to defend their own positions and to explain why the ruling authorities maintain their perpetual hold on power. After all, would you replace a prophet?
In today's Russia, history is not a science. Rather, leaders use it to lend weight to their interpretation of reality, primarily to make sense of it for themselves. It is one thing when a person says he should do something or, conversely, cannot do something. It is quite another when he begins his speech by citing historical figures such as Esau or Jacob.
The role that Old Testament proverbs play for Americans is comparable to the way Russian leaders cite episodes from World War II — or, from the more recent past, the Cold War — to what is generally an only moderately educated domestic audience.
The historical reminiscences that constantly pop up in the speeches of Russian leaders are not a threat or an attempt to "re-enact" those episodes now. They are an attempt by leaders to find their bearings during a crisis, give their words importance and convince themselves and their people that they are right.
Russian politicians do not intend these "fragments of history" for a foreign audience — where analysts will translate and interpret their significance — but for domestic consumption. Thus the irritation that the Western press expresses over them is largely unfair.
Putin's historical parables are not a guide to his future actions. Each time, they provide a way to describe the reality in which the state finds itself by citing a "higher" source that somehow transcends state budget figures, the price of oil and other, purely economic considerations.
Looking back to historical antecedents helps today's Russian leaders better understand themselves.
Perhaps these repeated allusions to the past are not the best way to bring something "transcendental" into politics, but they are also relatively harmless for others. The sooner Western observers and politicians learn to pass them off as inconsequential, the easier it will be to resolve the current crisis.

President Obama's Weekly Address - Giving Thanks for Our Troops

Video Report - President Obama Joins The Herd with Colin Cowherd

White House: Obama Backs CIA Chief Over Torture Report

President Barack Obama has again backed Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan, a White House spokesman said Friday, a day after Brennan repeated claims that terror attacks had been prevented by the interrogation methods most consider to be torture.
The comments, by spokesman Josh Earnest, comes days after the Senate Intelligence Committee released a scathing report documenting interrogation methods used by CIA interrogators in the early 2000s such as simulated drowning, forced feedings and sleep deprivations.
On Thursday, Brennan acknowledged that "abhorrent" methods were used on terror suspects following the September 11, 2001, attacks.
But he largely defended the interrogation program, saying "useful and valuable information" was acquired after the CIA used what he referred to as "enhanced interrogation techniques," or EITs. He refused to call those techniques torture.
"The cause and effect relationship between the application of those EITs and the ultimate provision of information is unknown and unknowable," Brennan said. "But for someone to say that there was no intelligence of any value, of use, that came from those detainees once they were subjected to EITs, I think that lacks any foundation at all."
On Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest pointed to Brennan's statement that he fully supports Obama's decision to ban such tactics when he took office in 2009.
Brennan said "a limited number" of CIA officials went "outside the bounds" of approved rules and abused prisoners, but said he would "leave to others how they might want to label those activities."
The spy chief also slammed the Senate report's finding that enhanced interrogation tactics were ineffective, saying "useful and valuable" information was acquired after the agency used them.
Human rights activists and others have called for the prosecution of officials involved in the CIA's interrogation program.
Earlier this week, the Justice Department said it has decided not to re-open a criminal investigation. The department said investigators  did not find any new information in the Senate report that they had not previously considered.
When asked Friday why criminal charges have not been filed, Earnest said federal prosecutors "should be making decisions about their investigation absent any sort of political interference from anybody at the White House."
Asked whether any of those involved are still working for the government, Earnest called that a question for the CIA, but said President Obama "expects that everybody in the federal government live up to the policies that he has established," including his ban on torture.

Brennan refused to rule out whether a future U.S. administration would use similar techniques when faced with an imminent threat, saying he would "defer to the policymakers in future times."
In releasing her committee's report earlier this week, Senator Dianne Feinstein called the methods the CIA used to interrogate prisoners "far more brutal than people were led to believe."

Thousands of protesters expected in Washington, NYC over police killings

By Ian Simpson
Thousands of demonstrators were expected in Washington and New York on Saturday to protest the killings of unarmed black men by U.S. police and to urge Congress to protect citizens.
Organizers said the protests would be among the largest over police tactics and the killings of black males by officers in New York, Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri.
The lack of criminal charges from grand juries in the New York and Ferguson cases have galvanized protests around the United States.
"We need more than just talk; we need legislative action that will shift things both on the books and in the streets," civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose National Action Alliance is heading the Washington protest, said in a statement.
Sharpton said Congress needed to pass legislation that would let federal prosecutors take over cases involving police. Local prosecutors who work with police regularly and then must investigate officers face a conflict of interest, he said.
The Washington protest will include the families of Eric Garner and Akai Gurley, who were killed by New York police; Trayvon Martin, slain by a Florida neighborhood watchman in 2012; and Michael Brown, killed by an officer in Ferguson.
The march will start at noon and block Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the U.S. Capitol. Protesters are expected to arrive by bus from as far away as Florida, Connecticut and Pittsburgh, according to the organizers' website.
In New York, the march was expected to draw about 44,000 people and was meant to reinvigorate protests that swelled after a grand jury declined to indict the officer who killed Garner using a choke hold, organizers said.
“It’s open season on black people now,” New York march co-organizer Umaara Elliott said in a statement. “So we demand that action be taken at every level of government to ensure that these racist killings by the police cease.”
The march was to start at 2 p.m. at Washington Square, go to midtown Manhattan and then turn downtown to end at New York Police Department headquarters in lower Manhattan.

Atheists fight to end US ban on holding public office

By LAURIE GOODSTEINDEC A bookkeeper named Roy Torcaso, who happened to be an atheist, refused to declare that he believed in God in order to serve as a notary public in Maryland. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and in 1961 the court ruled unanimously for Mr. Torcaso, saying states could not have a “religious test” for public office.

But 53 years later, Maryland and six other states still have articles in their constitutions saying people who do not believe in God are not eligible to hold public office. Maryland’s Constitution still says belief in God is a requirement even for jurors and witnesses.

Now a coalition of nonbelievers says it is time to get rid of the atheist bans because they are discriminatory, offensive and unconstitutional. The bans are unenforceable dead letters, legal experts say, and state and local governments have rarely invoked them in recent years. But for some secular Americans, who are increasingly visible and organized, removing the bans is not only a just cause, but a test of their growing movement’s political clout.
Todd Stiefel, the chairman and primary funder of the Openly Secular coalition, said: “If it was on the books that Jews couldn’t hold public office, or that African-Americans or women couldn’t vote, that would be a no-brainer. You’d have politicians falling all over themselves to try to get it repealed. Even if it was still unenforceable, it would still be disgraceful and be removed. So why are we different?”
It would be unthinkable for such “naked bigotry” against white people or Presbyterians or Catholics to go unnoticed if state constitutions still contained it, said Rob Boston, director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an advocacy group. “Right now we hear a lot of talk from conservative Christians about their being persecuted and their being forced to accommodate same-sex marriage. But there’s nothing in the state constitutions that targets Christians like these provisions do about nonbelievers,” Mr. Boston said.
The six states besides Maryland with language in their constitutions that prohibits people who do not believe in God from holding office are Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
Mississippi’s Constitution says, “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.” North Carolina’s says, “The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”
Pennsylvania’s Constitution contains no prohibition, but does say that no one can be “disqualified” from serving in office on the basis of religion — as long as they believe in God “and a future state of rewards and punishments” (a reference to heaven and hell). Article VI of the United States Constitution says no “religious test” should ever be required for federal office.
And since the Supreme Court’s decision in the Torcaso case, states have clearly been prohibited from making belief in God a requirement for public office, said Ira C. Lupu, an emeritus professor at George Washington University Law School who specializes in church-and-state issues. Mr. Lupu said of the language in the state constitutions: “Of course they shouldn’t be in there. They’re all unconstitutional. They can’t be enforced.”
But there has been no political will to rescind these articles. “Which politician was going to get up and say, ‘We’re really going to clean this up’?” he said.
The state bans have been invoked rarely since 1992, according to legal experts. In South Carolina that year, Herb Silverman, a math professor at the College of Charleston who is an atheist activist, was denied a position as a notary public. His case went to the South Carolina Supreme Court, and in 1997 he won. In North Carolina, after Cecil Bothwell, a writer, won a seat on the Asheville City Council in 2009, his opponents tried to invoke the State Constitution’s atheist ban to deny him his seat, but they soon backed down.
Organizers with Openly Secular see the bans as evidence of the quiet bigotry and discrimination faced by many atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers. They point to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center this year showing that nearly half of Americans would disapprove if a family member married an atheist.
Pew also found that 53 percent of Americans polled in April said they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate they knew was an atheist. Being an atheist was found to be the least desirable trait a candidate could have — worse than having cheated on a spouse or used marijuana.
The Openly Secular coalition, which includes 30 groups and was formed this year, is trying to win greater acceptance for nonbelievers by encouraging them to go public. Taking a page from the gay rights campaign called It Gets Better, the coalition has posted short video testimonies from people who declare that they are happily nonbelievers. Among those who have recorded videos are former Representative Barney Frank and Chris Kluwe, a former punter for the Minnesota Vikings.
Now the coalition plans to lobby legislators in the seven states, plus Pennsylvania, to rid the constitutions of the discriminatory language. The process of changing the constitution is different in each state, but the first hurdle will be finding legislators willing to stand up for nonbelievers.
In Maryland, one state senator has already been hearing from constituents who want the atheist ban removed. Jamie B. Raskin, the Democratic majority whip, is also a professor of constitutional law at American University.
In an interview, Mr. Raskin said the constitutional provision was inconsistent with Maryland’s history as a refuge for Catholics fleeing persecution and a haven of religious tolerance. He foresees an attempt to remove the atheist ban as part of a broader overhaul and modernization of the State Constitution. But the next opportunity for a referendum on whether to hold a constitutional convention in which changes could be made is not until 2020, he said.
Paging through a copy of the State Constitution, he said the atheist ban was only part of the “flotsam and jetsam” that needed to be wiped from the document. “It’s an obsolete but lingering insult to people,” he said.
“In the breathtaking pluralism of American religious and social life, politicians have to pay attention to secularists just the same as everybody else,” Mr. Raskin said. “If a Mormon can run for president and Muslims can demand official school holidays, surely the secularists can ask the states for some basic constitutional manners.”
But there may be some resistance from legislators who see the effort to remove the clauses as sensible, but politically and symbolically unpalatable.
Christopher B. Shank, the Republican minority whip in the Maryland Senate, said that while he believed in pluralism, “I think what they want is an affirmation that the people of the state of Maryland don’t care about the Christian faith, and that is a little offensive.”


Music Video - Noor Jahan - (Ghazal) - Mujhe Se Pehli Si Mohabat

Pashto Music Video - Brekhna Amel

Farsi Music Video - Sara Sahar - Dil Beqarar

Farsi Music Video - Roya Doost - Ala Yaar

A Native Daughter Returns to Afghanistan on Daring Mission: Educating Girls

By Susan Daugherty

National Geographic Emerging Explorer Shabana Basij-Rasikh helped start a first-of-its-kind school.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh thinks she knows the secret to healing ethnic tensions that arose from more than 30 years of war in Afghanistan, improving the struggling economy, and fixing the devastated infrastructure: girls.
Having co-founded her home country's first boarding school for girls in 2008, Basij-Rasikh believes that women are the nation's most valuable untapped natural resource. Her nonprofit School of Leadership, Afghanistan in Kabul offers college prep courses and helps graduates get into universities around the world.
The hope is that they come back to pursue careers in Afghanistan.
"These young women are the generation that can bring peace and prosperity back to our country," says Basij-Rasikh, 24, who was educated in secret during the repressive Taliban regime. (Read a Q&A with Basij-Rasikh.)
From 1996 until 2001, when the Taliban was toppled by U.S.-led forces, Afghanistan's women were barred from participating in politics and business. The fundamentalist Islamic regime also made it illegal for girls to go to school.
By 2007, only 6 percent of Afghan women 25 years or older had received any formal education. Even today, the illiteracy rate for rural women hovers around 90 percent. (Related: "New Afghan Law Disastrous for Women, Says National Geographic Photographer.")
To chip away at that number, the School of Leadership has helped students from across Afghanistan access more than ten million dollars in scholarships. The school has 35 students, ages 12 to 18, and is working to boost enrollment to 340 in the next five years.
"The most effective antidote to the Taliban is to create the best educated leadership generation in Afghanistan's history," says Basij-Rasikh. "Our girls today—the women of tomorrow—will make it happen."
Key to meeting that goal, she says, is involving women from around the world. Each student at School of Leadership, Afghanistan—or SOLA, which means "peace" in the Pashtun language—is matched with a volunteer mentor from abroad to Skype with twice a week. Mentors and students discuss current events and books and talk through communications challenges, college applications, and personal problems.
"After growing up in a society that doesn't value academics or careers for girls," Basij-Rasikh says, "imagine how it feels to have an advocate on the other side of the world who goes online just for you, wants you to succeed, and thinks your education is of the greatest importance." (Read about the life of the iconic "Afghan girl" who appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine.)
Academics are only part of the program. The Kabul school offers extracurricular activities that continue to ruffle feathers in conservative Afghan society.
"Often, Afghan girls are told to be ashamed of their bodies," says Basij-Rasikh. "We tell them to exercise, climb rocks, and skateboard. This physical activity builds self-esteem and inner strength they'll need when they become the first women to enter many fields.
"We've even offered driving lessons," she adds, "which is extraordinary in a country where you can count the number of female drivers on your hands."

An Illegal Education

Basij-Rasikh could have easily been among Afghan's vast uneducated.
But maverick members of her family had for generations insisted on the importance of education, even for girls. During Taliban years, her parents risked the lives of the entire family to send Basij-Rasikh and her sister to a secret school for girls.
Dressed as a boy, Basij-Rasikh slipped through the streets of Kabul, taking a different route each day to a home where a hundred young girls packed into the living room to learn.
Years later, she attended high school in the U.S. through an exchange program, and earned a degree in international studies and women and gender studies from Middlebury College in Vermont in 2011.
When she returned to Afghanistan, Basij-Rasikh vowed not just to improve education for women but also to help the country rethink how it educates everyone.
For instance, at virtually all Afghan schools, student bodies reflect the insular, homogeneous ethnicity of their local area. "Students never have a chance to interact with people from other backgrounds," says Basij-Rasikh, "and that escalates our nation's severe ethnic tensions."
That's why the School of Leadership is a boarding school, with students coming from 14 provinces, representing five different ethnic backgrounds, and including both Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Girls, parents, and teachers sign an honor code pledging to respect, accept, and appreciate each other's differences.
"SOLA not only educates children," says Basij-Rasikh, "it's also a powerful opportunity to address social problems, promote unity, and nurture change makers."

Where Safety Is Not a Problem

Of course, the education part also matters—a lot.
"Afghanistan's current educational curriculum is 40 years old, and the entire system is based on rote learning and memorization," Basij-Rasikh says. "SOLA's focus is on critical thinking, creativity, and innovation. How else will they be equipped to solve our nation's complex problems?"
Instituting that kind of new thinking isn't easy. "The concept of a girl living away from home to be educated isn't culturally accepted," Basij-Rasikh says. "Families receive threats, and some even risk their lives to send daughters here."
Still, she marvels at the single mothers who "work so hard and sacrifice so much to give their girls the chance they were denied."
Now, many of the students want to give others new opportunities. Basij-Rasikh says that one student sets her sights on earning enough money as a businesswoman to build a hospital in the Afghan district with the world's highest maternal mortality rate.
But that depends on SOLA graduates' returning to Afghanistan after they study abroad at elite institutions like Tufts University, Smith College, and Yale.
"We don't ignore the disparity these girls face when they go to countries where safety is not a problem, where electricity doesn't disappear, where they have showers not buckets, and grocery stores are filled with an abundance of options," Basij-Rasikh says.
"Our hope is that by creating a high-quality boarding school that lets them spend formative years in their own country, they'll have more reasons and desire to return."
Ultimately, Basij-Rasikh hopes her school will acquire a larger campus in Kabul, that its model will be replicated throughout Afghanistan, and even that critical-thinking-based learning will become part of mainstream public schools.
But all that is probably a long way off. The first priority is getting recent graduates to come back from abroad. "My father tells me my efforts are like planting a date tree," she says. "It takes 50 years to bear its first fruit. I am determined to make it happen."