Ever since the War on Terrorism began and the United States government started to engage in mass surveillance in the country and around the world, American Muslims have been warning this surveillance would eventually affect everyone in the country, not just Muslim communities.

Documents provided to journalists by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have shown that more should have listen to these communities most targeted by the surveillance state after the 9/11 attacks. The NSA collects Americans’ phone records indiscriminately and stores them. The agency has a PRISM program that gives the agency direct access to Internet companies to collect users’ data. The NSA and GCHQ are tapping into fiber optic cables of Internet companies to intercept traffic. The NSA collected US email records in bulk under President Barack Obama for two years. The NSA has worked to undermine encryption and attack anonymity tools like Tor. And, the NSA also has collected online contact lists.

Much of this mass surveillance has been made acceptable by the fear of Muslims. And, for another weekly podcast, journalist Rania Khalek joins me as a co-host to interview Gadeir Abbas, staff attorney for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), to discuss how the fear of Islam or fear of Muslims has been used to help make mass surveillance more acceptable to Americans. Abbas addresses how collection, not the search, is where the injustice for Muslims begins.

He also shares:

The saddest thing I’ve ever heard as a CAIR staff attorney, and I hear lots of sad things, was when a young guy told me that when he goes to the mosque to pray, his mom warns him to be careful. And the mom warns him to be careful because there’s an understanding based on experience that the mosque is likely filled with informants and infiltrators that are not there to make us any safer but there to extract information from innocent Americans by any means necessary.

Following the interview portion of the podcast, Khalek and I discuss Obama’s refusal to concede the NSA has committed abuses, a “brain dead” woman in Texas who is being kept on life support against her wishes because she is pregnant, a few “Stand Your Ground” cases, the “NATO 3″ trial and pro-AIPAC mayor Bill De Blasio of New York City.

This week was a bit more lengthy than the previous week and clocks in at about 70 minutes. But you can download the podcast, save it for later and make your way through it as you find the time if you’re interested in any of the topics discussed.

Listen to the weekly podcast here.

*Below is a transcript of the interview with Abbas 

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Gadeir, the first question I have for you is basically, what about this debate is maybe good for Muslims and what do you think these communities as they listen to the debate are wondering, you know, what more could we get–Maybe they’re bothered by the state of the debate and thinking that it’s not really hitting on some of the key issues that they’re affected by.

GADEIR ABBAS: I think one of the key points that Muslims have been making for years now is that the spying and the surveillance that was disproportionately affecting the Muslim community would inevitably come to affect others outside the Muslim community. And as the Snowden revelations made crystal clear, that’s exactly what is happening now.

Everybody is the subject and target of the surveillance practices that the NSA’s engaged in. And if we go back to the genesis of the NSA spying programs that really evolved out of the Total Information Awareness program out of DARPA, spearheaded by John Poindexter, who had his conviction for involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal overturned on appeal after being sentenced to jail. When that program became public about a decade ago, there was widespread opposition to the idea that the government is going to everything about everybody and be able to sift through information that pertains to everybody.

And I think the response of DARPA and John Poindexter was really telling. Instead of changing the substance of the program, they changed the name from the Total Awareness Program to the Terrorist Information Awareness Program. And I think it was intended to send the message that broad surveillance isn’t going to target Bill and Bob, it’s going to target Abdullah and Youssef and the folks in the discreet communities. And what we believe was defeated publically by widespread opposition actually just became a part of the black budget and spawned the program that we have now.

RANIA KHALEK: That’s a really good point that you make and I actually want you to touch on that a little bit more about how the vilification and demonization of Muslims inside the United States and foreign has really been used to justify this type of mass surveillance and in some cases it seems to have worked. All you have to do is say terrorist, Islamic terrorism and people are like, oh okay. Could you talk a little bit about that?

ABBAS: I agree wholeheartedly that the fear of Islam, the fear of Muslims, is a notion I think has been cultivated by policy choices at the federal level. The use of airport screenings, that inevitably cultivates and reflects the bias that people have against Muslims, has I think created space for an anti-Muslim movement to take root. Right after September 11, you didn’t have your Act for America’s, your David Yerushalmi’s, your Center for Security Policy’s—this well-organized, well-financed movement dedicated towards marginalizing Muslims and that gave rise to essentially and engine of generating ant-Muslim sentiment that creates this terrible and despicable cycle where now you have the overt argument being made that Muslims are here in the United States to abrogate the US constitution, to overthrow the US government and replace it with Sharia law, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

As the facts would have it, the American Muslim community is a well-educated, well-integrated and looking to continue to do so in the world. You can’t identify an American Muslim radical voice in the United States, whereas if you go to Europe, you can find people that have a platform that say despicable objectionable things. In the US, that’s just not the case.

But we still have in the US, which is really exporting anti-Muslim sentiment to other parts of the world especially Europe, we still have this fear of Islam that absolutely does give rise to justify these surveillance policies.

GOSZTOLA: So for people who are hearing this debate and they maybe think it’s kind of abstract, we’ve been hearing people talk about collection of the information and then we’ve been hearing about how the information is stored. And right now when we’re talking about the program under the Patriot Act, the Section 215 program, which is the bulk records collection of the phone records, it’s all about who’s going to hold it, who’s going to store it, and it’s kind of like we’re not talking about the collection. I’d like you to talk about why the collection would be really bad and I think a thing you could address is how the collection of people’s information in Muslim communities in New York is a huge deal for them and collecting that information is the beginning of the injustice.

ABBAS: Absolutely. What we know a lot about now regarding the NSA’s surveillance programs is what is collected, some of the searching mechanisms that can be utilized to sift through the collected information. But what we really get to see in more granular detail with the NYPD’s specifically designed Muslim surveillance program is how indiscriminately collected information gets utilized and what people in positions of authority that can collect such information think is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars. And what we find is that the NYPD thought it was absolutely worth taxpayer money to send their agents on camping trips of 19 and 20-year-old college students. They thought it was absolutely critical for them to map the Muslim community in Newark, New Jersey, and beyond, identifying every halal grocery store, every halal restaurant. These things are laughable when we see them up close and in granular detail and just like the PCLOB board has determined itself, a board that was authorized by Congress years ago, that the sifting through everybody’s information on an ongoing basis actually is not only objectionable in itself but it’s not productive by any criteria.

So you have for instance James Clapper arguing that there’s the ‘piece of mind’ quotients that is part of the benefit of their surveillance program because we’re monitoring everything. At the very least we know that nothing is happening. But this mentality that gave rise to the NSA program is really the objectionable thing that needs to end because it gives rise to not only indiscriminate collection of information automatically through these telecommunications companies, but it’s also given rise to a network of 15,000 FBI informants that have saturated the Muslim community across the country, that are sent to mosques without any type of criminal predicate just to collect information because there’s a sense that that’s where the problem. And that’s the inevitable result of indiscriminate collection. It’s always going to be the case that indiscriminate collection—in addition to not being productiv—will lead to despicable consequences.

And I’ll end my answer here.

The saddest thing I’ve ever heard as a CAIR staff attorney, and I hear lots of sad things, was when a young guy told me that when he goes to the mosque to pray, his mom warns him to be careful. And the mom warns him to be careful because there’s an understanding based on experience that the mosque is likely filled with informants and infiltrators that are not there to make us any safer but there to extract information from innocent Americans by any means necessary.

KHALEK: I want to ask you about these ideas of reform. I tend to take a little bit of a more militant stance on this. I don’t think it’s possible to reform spying. But I know not everybody would agree with that. So what’s your take on that, do you think it’s possible to reform NSA surveillance?

ABBAS: The NSA should not be engaged in the spying of Americans and should not have any authority to do so and that was the genesis of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The idea was that we need to prevent the NSA and Department of Defense from spying on Americans. And I agree that there is a separate issue that isn’t covered by our constitution about whether America should be collecting information on millions upon millions of French citizens and what gives us the right to do that. And I think there have been some discussions.

There really does need to be an international regime that’s committed to placing limits on what nation-states can actually collect because the march of technology is against us here. It’s becoming cheaper and cheaper to collect all of the information. A benefit and protection on people’s privacy and their rights is the government has to pick and choose and prioritize what it investigates. If technology eliminates that dynamic where the government doesn’t have to pick and choose and can monitor everybody all the time, all the sudden it’s going to be difficult to make a political choice to not avail ourselves of that opportunity but I think the past six month really demonstrate that his is the issue of this era and it’s imperative that it gets resolved in favor of privacy and in favor of the rights of Americans and the privacy interests of people worldwide.

GOSZTOLA: I have two questions I want to ask and these are the last ones I really have for you. Specifically we’ve had these reports that show that the spying on Muslims is not necessarily indiscriminate in some cases. We’ve seen that the NSA analysts are willing to pick out leaders who are maybe Muslim clerics and go after them and see if they can find any promiscuities so that they could maybe manipulate them and turn them into informants that could work for the governments. So I’d like your comment on that. I’m also wondering if you want to speak to this larger issue that these issues that we’re having with the NSA surveillance and its targeting of Muslims really stem from the ongoing war on terrorism on a larger scale and how Americans are conditioned to vilify and hate the populations in these foreign countries where we’ve said there are terrorist groups that our US military forces or some other forces have to go after.

ABBAS: Regarding your first question about law enforcement’s practices of targeting Muslim leadership. That’s absolutely been the experience I think of many if not most American Muslim communities throughout the United States. And here is a unique situation where the targeted discriminatory surveillance and coercion that’s imposed on American Muslims really does not discriminate based on socioeconomic status. It covers all your gamut from Bill the blonde convert to Abdullah from Somalia. It is the case that the leadership of mosques does experience the watch listing consequences that deprive people from the ability to fly to funerals to visit family abroad and even in many cases ends careers. That’s the experience right now of our community.

In order to justify this posture it requires there to be a lot of fear. In the 1950s for instance Congress passed the Subversive Activities Act where they essentially identified that there’s a communist movement that’s worldwide, it’s purpose is to—by treachery and deceit infiltration and terrorism—to establish a communist dictatorship globally.

We can see the parallels between this fear of this movement that is trying to subvert our way of life that we can’t quite see but is always hiding. It parallels very closely the global war on terrorism where there is no way to end a war on terrorism and it doesn’t have any type of geographic limitation. When you structure a conflict in that way, inevitably what you’re doing is you’re giving yourself as a government the justification to impose extraordinary measures on everyone all the time even domestically. But I think what really has been promising and encouraging for us is that with the Snowden revelations we might look back in a decade on this as a turning point, a watershed moment where the American public stopped taking the government at its word and was less willing to attribute 9/11 as a catch all defense of any and all measures.

No one wants their grandma’s text messages to them to be monitored by the government. And that crosses along all lines. CAIR, for example, is part of a lawsuit with marijuana reform organizations, gun ownership advocacy organizations, church groups, organizations that we don’t really share a lot in common with. But all of us across a broad political issue spectrum have a very strong interest in not having the government look at our membership roles, be able to monitor our communications. And that I think is an important impetus to broader reforms that would bring sensible law enforcement policies that wouldn’t violate the American Muslim communities rights or anybody else’s for that matter.

KHALEK: I wanted to ask a more broad question about NSA surveillance. I love all the things you’re mentioning because a lot of this stuff really been I feel left out of the debate because a lot of the debate has been had between people who maybe haven’t been quite as effected or targeted by surveillance over the last decade or so. It seems the debate is just between white people, who are upset about this, and rightly so because it’s targeting everyone. We talked about how this is sort of the outgrowth of these policies that targeted Muslims but in general surveillance and spying in this country has always existed in a really intense manner in communities of color, whether it be Muslim communities or the black community or black Muslim communities. Do you think there’s an important lesson to learn from that, that this has been ongoing and people need to be concerned when it’s marginalized communities that are being targeted?

ABBAS: Really it’s up to the communities that are most affected to stand up and advocate for themselves on behalf of their own community as well as everyone else. I tend to take a slightly pessimistic view on what the Snowden revelations will ultimately accomplish because as you said we have a long history of undue surveillance in this country and it’s very easy for what they’re doing now to be reformed and for it to just become a part of the black budget and we not know about it but it still happens. But like we’re seeing in the push by the African American community and their allies against draconian drug laws, these are starting to have an effect. I think you’re seeing more sensible prison policies start to get considered.

And for the Muslim community I think part of the difficulty that the community has as a whole is that there is a lack of awareness about what it means to be an American Muslim by the broader public and there’s a general distrust of that community at large. And so the best way to demonstrate that the American Muslim community is a part of the fabric of the US is to do something for the US. And the best service that the American Muslim community can provide right now because of its experience with indiscriminate surveillance the Muslim community knows better than anyone else how despicable and how burdensome and useless such surveillance can be.

So like in South African the Muslim community during Apartheid was lockstep with those that were against apartheid and eventually brought it down. And South Africa’s ambassador to the US, Ebrahim Rasool, is a Muslim and he was governor of the largest state in South Africa. And those types of outcomes are possible in part because of the struggle that preceded those things. So I think it’s a challenge but there needs to be a constituency that continues to be focused on these things and those that are most effected, the Muslim community, are in the ideal position to be that constituency.

KHALEK: Thank you so so much Gadeir for taking the time to speak with us. We really appreciate it.

ABBAS: Thanks for having me.