Deedra Abboud knew what was she was getting into when she announced she was running against Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake in 2018. After all, she is a Muslim woman running for office in a time when the rhetoric against her community has gotten increasingly inflammatory, to the point where there's been an uptick in hate crimes and discriminatory incidents against Muslims.
The Phoenix Democrat experienced some online harassment following her announcement in April, but the abuse seemed to die down after the early days of her campaign. However, on Monday night, a swarm of trolls attacked her campaign's Facebook page after Abboud made a post about the separation between church and state.
The online attacks were reported by several outlets, and Flake himself sent a tweet in support of his opponent. He wrote, "Hang in there @deedra2018. Sorry you have to put up with this. Lots of wonderful people across AZ. You'll find them."
Unfortunately, Abboud's experience with online abuse is far from an isolated incident. A recent study by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that the number of hate crimes against the Muslim community in the first six months of 2017 increased 91% compared to the same period last year. The same report said of anti-Muslim bias incidents, when discrimination takes place because of religious reasons but does not qualify as a criminal offence, also increased 24%.
But the candidate is not going to let the trolls win. On Wednesday, she spoke with Refinery29 about the online harassment she has faced in the last couple of days and why she believes women everywhere must stand up to bullies.
First, I wanted to ask why you decided to run for office.
"I have been a civil rights and social justice advocate for 15 years before I became an attorney. And what I saw last year was constantly, my fellow Americans were being attacked and dehumanised on the political level and all the political levels.
"Our elected leaders were not standing up to their colleagues or anyone else and saying that's not what we are. I decided to enter this race because I wanted to change the conversations on a lot of things, that only being one of them."
Can you tell me a little bit about the online attacks you've received in the last couple of days?
"I knew from the beginning that this is what I was inviting, and I embraced that because that's part of the conversation we're not having. We, as a country, have not stood up and said, 'This is not an acceptable way for us to treat each other, and it's definitely not an acceptable way for our elected leaders to act, or fail to address.'
"In May, I actually did a meet-and-greet at a vegan restaurant. You know, very love and happiness. It came to the attention of some local white supremacist groups, the Fraternal Order of Alt Knights [of Phoenix.] They did an online campaign at the time to attack the campaign's Facebook, my personal Facebook, and anyone they could find within those realms. Then they decided to protest at the restaurant.
"It was a private area, but we told the police to let them stay there an hour so they could have freedom of speech, and also so we could show that they're not going to intimidate us. After an hour, the police told them that if they wanted to continue to protest, they could go to public space. They continued for another week or two, threatened to come to a few more of my events, then didn't.
"Then, the day before yesterday, Monday night, a little after seven, there was a huge influx of very determined, loud and proud hateful people posting on the campaign's Facebook."
How do you think harassment of the Muslim community has changed since the days immediately following the 9/11 terror attacks?
"It is worse today than any day in my 15 years as an activist, including right after September 11... One, it is worse today because we have social media. So people are happy to attack and draw blood against other people, people they label 'others' or 'unworthy' from the security of their homes. They don't have to say such as humans.
"Secondly, it is because after September 11, a lot of people stood up, including elected leaders. Other organisations stood up and said, 'No. This is not okay.'
"Now, it's not just that our elected leaders aren't standing up, it's not just that organisations are not uniting and working together as much as we could, they're busy. It's that a lot of our elected leaders repeat this rhetoric. Their colleagues aren't calling them out.
"We have elevated white supremacists, not just to normalcy, but an elevated status. They are now equal to anybody else who has a grievance, and that's a sad state of affairs for the United States of America."
Sen. Flake came out in your support, even though you're challenging him. How did it make you feel to see his tweet and to see so many allies come out in your defence when they saw what was happening?
"It made me proud to be an Arizonan and it made me proud to be an American, because that's true patriotism. Defending other people's freedom to be who they want to be is exactly the foundation of our country. That's true patriotism.
"I applaud Flake for standing up against the rhetoric directed at me. But we need him and other elected leaders to stand up against rhetoric no matter where it comes from, especially if it comes from their colleagues.
"Flake's tweet showed that Arizona has the opportunity to lead. Arizona can lead and show all the other campaigns in the United States that there's a way to run a campaign, to be competitive, to show that you're the best candidate without attacking the character or traits of your opponent that have nothing to do with the office."
What would you tell women who are thinking of running for office but may be afraid of facing this type of online abuse and may be afraid this online abuse can translate to a real life incident?
"I'll be perfectly honest with you. If you're going to run for political office, you better have thick skin. You better be able to stand up to bullies. Even before the rhetoric we're having now and the elevation of the white supremacists, this is a tough gig. You better know what you're getting into. Don't think that this is a place where people are going to be nice to each other.
"But, that doesn't mean that you're unsafe in life. Stand up to bullies, whether online or in person. You have to show them that they're not going to intimidate you. You don't have to be aggressive. You don't have to fight them. You just have to know that they're not pushing your head down. You're going to hold it high."
This interview has been edited and condensed.