Archive | February, 2013

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Central U to Host Economist Kotlikoff


NEW BRITAIN, CT – With the economy and debt crisis making front page news, Central Connecticut State University’s School of Business will present “Fixing America,” an American Savings Foundation Endowed Chair in Banking & Finance Distinguished Lecture.

The lecture, free and open to the public, will be presented by economist Laurence J. Kotlikoff, Ph.D., the William Fairfield Warren Professor of Economics at Boston University. The event will be held in Founders Hall March 6 at 7 p.m.

Kotlikoff is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Econometric Society, is a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc. He has served as a consultant to numerous U.S. and international banks, financial institutions, and corporations. He has provided expert testimony to Congress including the Senate Finance, the House Ways and Means, and the Joint Economic committees.

Some of his recent books, which address financial reform, taxes, personal finance, Social Security, and pensions, include The Clash of GenerationsThe Economic Consequences of the Vickers CommissionThe Healthcare FixThe Coming Generational Storm, and Generational Policy. His columns and blogs appear in numerous digital and print publications. Kotlikoff earned his B.A. in economics from the University of Pennsylvania and his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University.

The American Savings Foundation was established by the board of directors of American Savings Bank with the belief that in addition to serving its customers well, it should also help make the entire community a better place to live and work. The Foundation remains a permanent, independent charitable endowment dedicated to strengthening the community by supporting education, human services, and the arts, with a special emphasis on the needs of children, youth, and families.

For more information about the event, contact Rosa Colon at 860 832-3209 or ColonR@mail.ccsu.edu.

 

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Groups to Hold Tax Prep Help for Hartford Residents


HARTFORD — The United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut and the City of Hartford will host Super Saturday to help Hartford residents prepare thier income tax.

The free event for the public will be on  March 2 from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m.at Hartford Public Library, 500 Main St. in Hartford. at the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program corner, which offers free tax preparation and filing for households with an annual income up to $50,000.

Refunds are available in seven to ten days through direct deposit into a personal bank account. IRS-certified volunteer income tax preparers also identify the credits and refunds available to the including the state and federal Earned Income Tax Credit.

Super Saturday is an opportunity to assist as many tax filers as possible with their state and federal returns and to provide lower-to-moderate wage earning families access to other services that help build toward financial independence. I

n addition to tax preparation, volunteers will provide screening for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and credit report information. Tax filers will also be able to access the CT Works One-Stop Career Center, located at Hartford Public Library. This resourceful service assists with employment services such as job searching, resume writing and workshops.

A representative from the IRS Taxpayer Advocate’s office will be on site and, for those interested families, First Choice Health Centers will determine for eligibility for state benefits programs. Bank of America volunteers will provide information on how to obtain a free credit report.

Hartford’s Mayor Pedro Segarra and Susan B. Dunn, president and CEO of United Way, will greet volunteers and filers as they continue to work together to raise awareness about this essential community program.

Walk-in clients are welcome throughout Super Saturday. Individuals who are unavailable on March 2 may call 2-1-1 to learn if they qualify for VITA and to make an appointment at a convenient site. Assistance is also offered in Spanish and Polish at some locations.

 

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Next Battle Over the Voting Rights Act: Supreme Court


By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, New America Media

One of the GOP’s fondest wishes has been to kill the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. Twice it floated several trial balloons in Congress. The first one was in 1981 when the Act came up for renewal. The deal in the initial passage of the Act was that it be renewed every 25 years.

A few hardline ultraconservatives in the administration of then President Reagan administration made some loud threats to push Reagan to oppose its renewal. They were just that, idle threats. Reagan with no fanfare signed the renewal legislation.

However, the threats were a forewarning of things to come. When the Act came up for renewal again in 2006, the threats to thwart the law, turned into a mini-movement in Congress to delay or even block passage. A pack of House Republicans stalled the legislation for more than a week and demanded that hearings be held.

They used the same old argument that it punishes the South for past voting-discrimination sins, and they didn’t like the idea of bilingual ballots. Bush signed the renewal order. But the GOP had served notice that the early saber rattle against the act was a just a warm-up for a full throttle frontal assault. The GOP pecked at eroding the Act with the rash of photo identifications laws that the GOP governors and GOP controlled state legislatures enacted in recent years. The aim was to discourage and damp down the number of minority and poor voters that overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

It backfired. Black and Hispanic voters thumbed their noses at the GOP vote suppression ploys and packed the voting booths again in mass numbers in 2012.

The 2012 presidential election result was the final tipping point for the GOP. Though, it maintained its tight grip on the five Deep South states, and other Old Confederacy states, almost exclusively with the majority votes of white conservatives, the increased number of black and Hispanics in the states, poses a mortal threat to continued GOP dominance in those states, that is if there are no barriers propped up to their registering and voting.

The GOP’s hoped for trump card to stave that off as long as possible is the Supreme Court. The conservatives on the court read the election tea leafs and three days after President Obama’s reelection announced that they would take up a challenge to the Act. They dropped strong hints that they may well vote to gut the Act. Justice Anthony Kennedy said he was troubled by the provisions.

Chief Justice John Roberts bluntly said that things have changed in the South and that blacks supposedly vote everywhere in the South without any barriers or prohibitions. Clarence Thomas, to no surprise, went even further and flatly called Section 5 of the Act unconstitutional and left no doubt if and when he had the chance he’d knock the Act out completely.

The hook is the federal lawsuit by Shelby County, Alabama that claims the Act is outdated, discriminatory, and a blatant federal intrusion into state’s rights. The lawsuit explicitly wants the centerpiece of the Act, Section 5 dumped. This is the provision that mandates that states get “preclearance” from the Justice Department before making any changes in voting procedures. State attorneys general in several states have endorsed the Alabama County’s challenge.

The claims that the Act is a waste since blacks and Hispanics vote whenever and wherever they please is nonsense Even though black and Hispanic voters did vote in big numbers in the 2012 election, in many districts they still had to stand in endless lines, have their IDs thoroughly scrutinized, had no bilingual ballots, found voting hours shortened, and had to file legal challenges in state and federal
courts to get injunctions to stop the more onerous of the voter suppression laws from being enforced.

This was only part of the story of the roadblocks the GOP has thrown up. A study by the Alliance for Justice, a Washington DC based, public interest group, documented legions of complaints and challenges filed by the Justice Department and voting rights groups to discriminatory changes that county registrars have made to eliminate or narrow down the number of voters in predominantly minority districts.

There was never any real threat that Congress would have dared done away with the Act despite the GOP’s harsh warnings and wishes. But the action of many state officials, attorneys general and now the Supreme Court that threaten the Act is a grave warning that the GOP may finally get its fond wish. And that’s to gut, if not outright end the Voting Rights Act.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.

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Report: African Americans Over-represented in Residential Mental Health Facilities


By Adam Stulhman and Ann-Marie Mesquita, Staff Writers

HARTFORD—African Americans are over-represented among in-patient or residential psychiatric care facilities, according to a recent report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Connecticut mirrors this national trend.

According to the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, there are 647 (or 6 percent) Hispanic, 2,924, (or 8 percent) white, and 1,080, (or 12 percent) African American patients in inpatient or residential care.

Moreover, the percentage of blacks in these facilities is almost twice that of whites in all hospitals, except private psychiatric hospitals. Experts say this trend is because of a variety of culturally influenced reasons: poverty, stigma, biases, and a lack of mental health providers, who are culturally adept with people of color. According to NAMI, which gave the nation a “D” on delivery of mental health services, these reasons are major contributing factors that hinder minorities from seeking out treatment before “symptoms become so severe that they warrant inpatient care.”

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Additionally, African Americans have experienced “racist slights in their contacts with the mental health system,” according to the same 2009 NAMI report. “Some of these concerns are justified on the basis of research revealing clinician bias in over-diagnosis of schizophrenia and under-diagnosis of depression among African Americans.”

The disproportionate number of blacks in inpatient or residential treatment is alarming because African Americans have the same rate of mental illness as whites, experts say.

Yet, African Americans are underrepresented in outpatient treatment populations but over-represented in public inpatient psychiatric care. The causal factor in the under-representation of blacks in outpatient treatment is the out-of-pocket expense, or lack of employer-based managed care, the report says. Consequently, only working and middle-class blacks, who have insurance, can afford outpatient care. However, the racial gap between African American and white’s use of community-based programs is nonexistent because treatment is financed by public sources, especially Medicaid.

mental-health-in-hartford-ctAccording to Zelphia Hunter, a recovery coach specialist at Connecticut Behavioral Health Partnership and a coordinator of Shining Hope for Communities, the findings in the report resonates with her on a personal and professional level.

Hunter, a Hartford resident who lives with depression, said the “biases” that mental health providers have towards victims of mental illness are preventing many blacks from getting the services they may need.

“People need to realize that they have biases,” said Hunter, “and despite the fact that they may have good intentions, mental health providers need more training on how to deal with their biases, and how these biases hinder other people from getting help. People just need to understand that this is discrimination.”

Part of breaking down these barriers, Hunter said, is to promote more cultural awareness, and through the training and hiring of more Africans and Latinos in the mental health field.

“There is not enough training in cultural sensitivity and diversity in Connecticut,” Hunter said, “We need more people of color in the mental health field.”

Related Stories: 

African Americans Negotiate Mental Illness, Black Pain

Q and A :Terrie Willams, Mental Health Advocate, Author

Kate Mattias, Executive Director of the CT NAMI chapter, concurred with Hunter, saying that there needs to be better access and treatment for African Americans and Latinos.

Said Mattias:“African Americans and Latinos access mental health services at a far lesser degree then the general population. We need to increase the number of culturally competent providers.”

Like many community activists and scholars, State Representative Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) links the increase in mental health patients in the community to mass incarceration and said the state has been awakened about these longstanding issues. The legislature, he said, is now seeking policy changes to address these complex issues.

“We need to make changes to the laws that have led to higher rates of incarceration for African Americans, and one way this might happen is through people being able to earn credits for release while serving time by going to treatment while in jail. This could take time off a sentence.”

Ritter also said that more changes in the quality of healthcare are on the horizon.

“In the coming weeks, we might see a change in the uneven access to care available, and we might also have more beds for children,” he said.

Communications Director for the Department of Children and Families Gary Kleeblatt said that there is also a need to improve the quality of services available to black and Latino children.

“We are interested in continual improvement of services for children of color. They have needs and we need to improve upon meeting those needs,” Kleeblatt said. “We also need to expand and improve community-based health services, a more concentrated effort to move resources from residential treatment centers and group homes to children that are at home.”

 

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Health Care Changes Coming – Most People Don’t Know


By Marisa Demarco, New America Media

ALBUQUERQUE — In some communities, folks have never heard of “ObamaCare.”

They don’t know that the Affordable Care Act will take effect in 2014, and that they, too, may be eligible for free health services. “I’m amazed,” says Kelsey Heilman of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “When you’re talking to regular people on the street—particularly low-income people and particularly in communities of color—people just don’t know that anything is changing.”

Depending on the statistic you’re looking at, New Mexico has somewhere between the fourth- and second-highest rate of uninsured residents, she says. More than 400,000 folks in this stretch of desert lack access to health care. That’s about to change in a big way.

New Mexico is a large state, area-wise, and aside from a couple of metropolitan corridors, the population is spread far and wide. Not everyone has access to the Internet. Smaller towns might not have a local media source. These factors contribute to an information void in some parts of the state, even about basics like medical help.

But that’s not the only struggle. “Part of the problem is the coverage of the Affordable Care Act has been so politicized,” Heilman says. “It’s been so hard to tell people: ‘This is what’s happening if you don’t have insurance. And this is what’s happening if you do have insurance.’ That’s the kind of info people want now.”

The Basics

Early this year, New Mexico’s Gov. Susana Martinez announced the state would expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The move, though unexpected from a conservative governor, will allow Medicaid to cover 170,000 more people in the state.

If you make about $15,000 per year (about equal to a full-time minimum-wage job) and you’re single, or if your family of four takes in $32,000 per year, you’ll be covered by Medicaid. No premiums, no cost sharing.

If you make more than that and don’t have benefits from your job, you’ll check out the state’s health insurance exchange. You’ll log onto the official online marketplace—not unlike Travelocity—and look for the best deal. Depending on your income level, you will pay part of the premium, and the federal government will pay the rest.

There is a fine for people who don’t sign up for anything. It wouldn’t apply to that first group, folks earning minimum wage for themselves or their families. And it wouldn’t apply to Native Americans.

Everyone else would face an increasing penalty. In 2014, it would be $95 per uninsured person. In 2015, it would be $325. In 2016, it would be a steep $695. (Children count as half-people for the purposes of the fine.) The penalty kicks in if you go longer than three months without coverage, but it never costs more than the health insurance would.

Yes, there’s an individual mandate. But as Heilman notes, the good news is that health care will reach so many more Americans. “If you or someone in your household is uninsured, you are probably going to be able to get coverage. You, at the end of this year, are going to have access to a health insurance option.”

People can begin enrolling on Oct. 1.

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Pajamas at DMV Go to Help Children in Need


WETHERSFIELD – There are many ways to express caring. Flowers, chocolates, fancy dinners and… pajamas collected at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

DMV employees recently showed their caring for children in need by donating 100 pairs of PJs to the Connecticut Chapter of the Pajama Program, a nation-wide organization supporting needy children and families.

“I am proud of our DMV employees helping those in our state. The Pajama Program will benefit children with a gift that will be special to them,” said DMV Commissioner Melody A. Currey.

DMV employees Kathy Gagnon and Paula Jervasi headed up the collection efforts and delivered the donations on Valentine’s Day. A variety of jammies were donated. They came in many sizes and sported a rainbow of reds, blues, greens and other colors accented in different designs. The assortment even rivaled the many ways pajamas have been spelled since the term was introduced more than 200 years ago (paunjammahs, paejamus, paijamahs, peijammahs, piejamahs, pigammahs, pajamas, pyjamahs, pyjamas, pyjammas, paijamas, according to the Oxford English Dictionary).

Most of all, though, these PJs pack the promise of excitement for children looking for unique special bedtime clothes to call their own. The donations go to various organizations in the state that help Connecticut’s families in need, the Pajama Program’s Connecticut coordinators have pointed out.

Many children are waiting for donations and the need for them is strong, said Connecticut chapter leader Janet Estevez in an interview last fall. “It is such a simple gesture, but makes a world of difference to these children. The Pajama Program goes into high gear now to ensure as many children as possible will be warm at bedtime during the fall and winter months,” she said.

The Pajama Program in Connecticut coordinates the delivery of the sleepwear in the state as well as books that are donated, too. (http://pajamaprogram.org/WordPress/chapters/connecticut-chapter/)

With 40 states benefitting from the New York-based Pajama Program, the national organization donated over 2 million pajamas and books since 2001 to children in need across the United States. More information about the program can be found at www.pajamaprogram.org.

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Agency Orders Man to Stop Scamming Prisoners


HARTFORD — Gotcha.

At least that’s what a Connecticut man heard when the Department of Consumer Protection caught him cheating prison inmates and their families with false promises of parole and advocacy services.

Citing violations of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, the DCP ordered Christopher  C. Shuckra and his companies to cease and desist from engaging in any similar business in the future. In addition, the Department’s order requires restitution to 28 victims, Commissioner William M. Rubenstein said on Wednesday.

According to the DCP’s report, Shuckra, whose last known address was in Hartford, was doing business as Innovative Sentencing Solutions, LLC since 2009 and Parole Advocates since 2012. Both companies advertised and offered parole and advocacy services to prison inmates and their families in Connecticut and nationwide.  These services included preparation of pardon and clemency petitions, advocacy at parole hearings and similar services.

“Despite Mr. Shuckra’s promises to help these consumers, he failed to undertake any of the essential services that would have helped them in any way, much less, secure the release from prison they so desperately desired,” Rubenstein said.  “The companies’ deception victimized inmates, their wives, mothers, children and family members, stealing not only their money but their hopes of reuniting with their families. Clients often struggled greatly to pay his fees, which ranged from $500 to $2500, for which no services were delivered, and no full or partial refunds were provided.”

 

Innovative Sentencing Solutions entered into contracts that promised full refunds if specific results were not achieved and often instructed clients to make payment directly to Christopher Shuckra, rather than the company. On at least one business website, Shuckra listed Innovative Sentencing Solutions in the “Lawyers” section, although neither Shuckra nor his companies are licensed to perform legal services in Connecticut.

 

“These contrived services merely preyed upon offenders and their loved one,” said Commissioner Leo C. Arnone, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Correction. “Many of the issues for which assistance was offered for a fee, such as obtaining a facility transfer, resolution of facility issues and parole hearing advocacy are matters that an inmate and his or her family could address for free with the Department of Correction.

 

The Final Decision and Order requires Shuckra to immediately pay restitution to 28 victims named in the order in the total amount of $37,416. Additionally, it permanently bars Shuckra and his companies’ employees from engaging in, or assisting others engaging in the advertising or provision of advocacy services for incarcerated individuals.

 

“Anyone considering hiring an advocate for any purpose should first be sure that the person is properly licensed, check to see if any complaints have been filed against the person or their company, and try to get reviews from past clients,” Rubenstein said.  For persons involved in the Corrections system, he encouraged consumers to seek the services of reliable, well-established experts, including community-based non-profit groups, attorneys, or the Corrections system personnel.

 

The Department of Consumer Protection advises consumers to be especially wary when, after enlisting services from a company, they are directed to make payment directly to an individual, or employee of that company.

 

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Online Learning Democratizes Higher Ed, But Can It Get You a Job?


By Jonah Harris

As a recent high school graduate, I have a lot of options when it comes to higher education.

There are big colleges and little colleges, urban campuses and rural campuses, liberal arts colleges, trade schools, community colleges, research universities, and non-research universities. Now there’s the new trend in higher education, Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, which proponents say have the potential to revolutionize the college experience.

For me, the more pertinent question is: Can they replace it?

MOOCs are online college courses that ultimately aim to make elite education available to all. Unlike most online colleges, they generally do not give credit or confer diplomas, but make up for it with courses of quality and prestige not found in any other form of distance education.

the-hartford-guardian-OpinionCoursera, perhaps the most prominent company offering online courses, was founded in 2012 by two computer science professors from Stanford. It offers courses from 33 universities, including Stanford, Brown, Caltech, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, the University of California system, and many other top-tier universities. Edx, another Palo Alto-based company, founded in 2011, offers courses from MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, and Georgetown, among others. You can study hundreds of different subjects; most deal with technology, science, or math, but you can also take courses in philosophy, ancient Greek history, and a multitude of other humanities subjects.

Statistics show that some 60 percent of Americans aged 25 to 34 years old do not have a college degree; many are hindered by the cost. Online courses could offer hope to millions of people who cannot attend traditional colleges.

The lofty objectives and practical benefits have a clear draw. Coursera attracts 70,000 new users a week and reached its millionth member faster than Facebook. The industry as a whole has attracted tens of millions of dollars of investment capital from universities and private investors. The lack of prerequisites, age cutoffs, or price tag has attracted millions of users who would otherwise not be able to take college courses from top universities.

And the State of California has its own interest in the phenomenon. Both Governor Jerry Brown and state Superintendent Tom Torlakson have supported increased investment in online education and implementation across California’s university system. As part of this push, Silicon Valley-based Udacity is partnering with San Jose State University (SJSU) and local community colleges to develop a mix of in-house and online courses that – for the first time ever – will offer credit.

But what about me? I ask myself whether I am willing to replace a traditional college with a MOOC. And the answer is, not yet.

First of all, if higher education’s overarching objective is to mold a teenager into an adult, the peripheral aspects of the college experience — living away from home, forming new communities, and taking part in the traditions of a unifying experience — are just as important as advanced instruction in a particular field.

Even if MOOCs perfectly replicate classes, they can’t replace the growth that comes with independence and the challenge of gaining new experience.

Second, in strictly economic terms, it comes down to prestige. The difference when it comes to quality of instruction between top and middle-tier universities may be small, but the prestige of a Harvard diploma can make all the difference when it comes to job offers and salaries.

And that is precisely the problem with MOOCs. Even if an MIT student takes exactly the same course as an independent MOOC learner, employers will ultimately see that one student worked hard enough to gain entry to one of the most prestigious institutions in the world and the other simply logged onto the course from his computer. It would take a radical shift in how society views college to make a MOOC certificate of completion as impressive as a college degree.

Ultimately, I can’t help but think the benefits of a degree from a relatively less prestigious institution would serve me better in the job market than one from an online course.

So while I will continue to root for the success of this great experiment, which seeks to make premier higher education available to everyone, for now I remain unconvinced. College is more than classes. For the tens of millions of full- or part-time college students across this country, it serves as a place and a time to build new social networks, to foster intellectual risk taking and greater independence, things MOOCs cannot provide.

Jonah Harris is a recent high school graduate from San Francisco.

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Hartford Man Found Dead in Correctional Center


HARTFORD — The Connecticut Department of Correction is investigating the alleged suicide of a local man locked up in the Hartford Correctional Center on Weston Street.

According to CDC officials, Gregory Bryant, 23, of Hartford, was found  at 8:42 p.m. on Sunday, while correctional officers were conducting routined tours.

The officers found Bryant with a plastic bag over his head and a piece of bed sheet tied around his neck. The other end of the sheet was secured to the air vent in the cell. He was the only inmate in the cell at the time, officials said.

According to a report, Correctional and medical staff immediately  began emergency and life saving measures. The inmate was transported to Hartford Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 9:35 p.m.

Bryant was a sentenced with the charge of violation of probation or conditional discharge and had entered the Hartford Correctional Center on Feb. 2, officials said.

The exact manner and cause of death will be determined by the State Medical Examiner’s Office. The Department of Correction Security Division and the Connecticut State Police are investigating the death.

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‘God’s Facebook’ — Author Promotes Harmony


Siliconeer Question & Answer, Ras H. Siddiqui

RS: How long did it take you to compile and write “God’s Facebook: Creating a Friendship of Civilizations in a Terror-ridden World”?

NS: Thirteen years – on and off. The last two years were intense.

RS: Why did you, a PhD in Engineering, embark on such a detailed project on religions?

NS: Religion is everybody’s business – isn’t it? Actually, the topic of religion has always fascinated me because of its significance in our personal, social, and political lives. Also, religion has recently taken the center stage in global politics and a large part of our foreign policy is targeted to fight religious extremism across the globe. World peace seems to be more and more dependent on religion these days. I feel that unfamiliarity with other religions is a barrier to progress towards peace. I embarked on this project with the hope that my book would help remove that unfamiliarity and open our minds to the central message of compassion dominant in all religious scriptures.

RS: Some major scholarly interfaith work has been done recently on the Abrahamic Faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), but your work has expanded it to encompass Buddhist, Hindu, Bahai and Sikh beliefs amongst others and even incorporates Atheists. Why did you choose such a large and ambitious canvas?

NS: As an engineer, I received training to be comprehensive when solving a problem. The problem of world peace doesn’t only involve Abrahamic faiths, but all other faiths. Hindus constitute the third largest religious group in the world, yet they are ignored in western interfaith literature because the West is only involved with a fight amongst adherents of Abrahamic faiths. There are many conflicts, of different scales, around the globe, some involving Hindus and Buddhists. If we are serious about world peace, we have to address all faiths, not only those that are of immediate concern to us. However, I must say that the inclusion of atheism is probably unique in my book. Atheism is a growing belief and we need to include atheists in the interfaith dialogue so that they form a tolerant view of other religions and vice versa. Interfaith dialogues will fail if we remain oblivious to a certain faith group.

RS: I enjoyed the way the book is structured. What made you decide to use Facebook formats like status updates as part of the layout for this book?

NS: I wanted to make the book entertaining and approachable. Since I decided to arrange the book chronologically, like in a timeline, I felt that Facebook format would make sense. I thought “Status Update” would give a quick review of what happened in a corresponding historical period and “Like” features would allow me to draw attention to some important quotes. So, I chose the Facebook formats and added few new things, such as “Coffee Breaks” to break the monotony of a series of quotes.

RS: You have pursued the development of religious thought in human history. Why do you think that religious differences have caused so much suffering while the ultimate aim of all religions is to find inner peace?

NS: We have seen so much suffering because we took pride in our religion (although pride is considered a negative trait in all religious scriptures) and have judged other religions, primarily due to our unfamiliarity, as savage religions. Politics, imperialism, and competition for land and resources complicated matters further and the power-hungry people among us quickly discovered that religious fervor is the strongest emotion that we can use to gain more power. It is ironic that the common masses who were either perpetrators or victims of religious violence are often ignorant about the differences over which they were fighting each other. I have tried to show those differences and similarities in my book and hope that it will be difficult for us to continue this fight if we are fully aware of the differences and similarities among our religions.

RS: Would we be wrong to assume that you appear to be greatly inspired by the Sufism?

NS: No. Frankly, I owe a lot to Sufism, which has forever shaped my thinking. I was introduced to Sufism at a very early age. I read Rumi, Hafiz, Iqbal, Attar and Sanai during my teenage years and had even translated some of their poems into my native Bengali language. I am also greatly inspired by Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet, who is perhaps the one of the greatest Sufi poets of the Indian subcontinent.

RS: What can you briefly tell us about your own religious upbringing and your early life in Bangladesh?

NS:
 I grew up in a very liberal Muslim family. My grandfather was a reputed Islamic scholar who was very liberal in his outlook. He would accept invitations from Hindus to attend Gita (Hindu scripture) recitation events. My father was very knowledgeable about western philosophy and he introduced me to the works of Plato, Aristotle, Bertrand Russell, Bernard Shaw, Shakespeare, John Stuart Mill, Hegel, and Kant at a very early age. I was allowed to read anything and everything, including religious scriptures of other religions. At the same time, I was following the daily duties of a practicing Muslim. In our household, we used to have after-dinner conversations with our father about philosophy, religion, and politics almost on a regular basis; those were no bars hold discussions – anyone can ask any questions and say anything or challenge anyone. From time to time, we would have our uncles and grandparents as houseguests and they too would join those family discussions led by my father. Those discussions left an indelible mark in my mind and I grew up to be an open-minded person in my religious, philosophical, and political outlook. My parents never imposed any religious rules on us; they left it to us to choose the limits of our religious practices.

RS: You are going against the grain of Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” work in your book. Did you find his thought process a challenge to overcome in “God’s Facebook”? 

NS: Not really. I am an optimist and was never persuaded by the prediction of an imminent and inevitable clash of civilizations. I felt that we have to create an alternative that would avoid the clash, which is based on the hypothesis that that we will always remain unfamiliar about each other’s religion. However, in a globalized world, ruled by Facebook and other social networking tools, I saw that a breakthrough is possible due to the cheap cost of communication and interconnection. That’s how I came up with the new paradigm of “Friendship of Civilizations.”

RS: About life here in the United States, we know that the separation of church and state has been a successful model. But people in this country also spend an enormous amount of time staying connected to some kind of spirituality. Do you think that religion should remain a personal rather than a collective journey?

NS: 
I am a fervent supporter of separation of church and state because history teaches us that the two are a dangerous mix. The human need for spirituality is eternal and the separation of church and state hasn’t hindered anyone from fulfilling that need. However, the question whether religion should be a personal or collective journey is a difficult one. Because, religion, or for that matter, any other ideology, is by its very nature both a personal and a collective journey. When we internalize an ideology to call it our own – it is often a personal journey of soul searching. Since humans are social animals, we typically like to share our discovery or ideology with others; that’s when our collective journey begins.

We must also find creative solutions to the problem of public religiosity becoming a dangerous weapon against human rational quest; removing religion from public life is not the solution. Rather, we should create a friendship of religions as we have created a friendship of people of different countries, colors, and races in USA.

“GOD’s Facebook” is available at Amazon.com.
Publisher: Innovation & Integration, Inc. (December 3, 2012) | ISBN: 978-09858232

Editor’s Note: A book by a Bangladeshi-American author from El Dorado Hills, Calif., is adding to the dialog amongst religions without ignoring atheists in the conversation. Siliconeercorrespondent Ras Siddiqui (RS) speaks to Dr. Najmus Saquib (NS), author of ‘God’s Facebook.’

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