The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Muslim running for U.S. Senate praised the Founding Fathers. Then the diatribes began.

Deedra Abboud is a Muslim-American candidate running for U.S. Senate against Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). (Video: The Washington Post)

There weren’t a ton of people commenting on U.S. Senate hopeful Deedra Abboud’s campaign Facebook page before Tuesday.

Then Abboud, a little-known candidate in Arizona’s 2018 Democratic primary, posted a short tribute to the Founding Fathers, religious freedom and the separation of church and state — and the floodgates opened.

“Sorry no room for Muslims in our government,” wrote Chris Siemers.

“Towel headed piece of s—,” wrote Brian Zappa.

Abboud, a liberal 45-year-old lawyer and first-time political candidate, might be a long shot in red-state Arizona. But the fact that Abboud, who converted to Islam in her 20s, also wears a visual marker of her faith — a headscarf — might also have just landed her unlikely campaign in the national spotlight.

“Now, I’m more on the radar. More people know that I’m out there,” Abboud said in an interview Wednesday, noting a silver lining to the larger “ugliness” that she said the online attacks had exposed.

Originally from Little Rock, Abboud moved to Arizona as a young adult in the late 1990s. She has spent most of her career since then doing advocacy work, including as the founding director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Arizona chapter, before attending law school and working as an immigration and estate law attorney.

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Her campaign’s Facebook page is filled with posts on her policy positions in favor of environmental protection, LGBT rights, health-care access and a higher minimum wage. But it wasn’t until this week, amid the onslaught of xenophobic and racist insults (many of the negative comments assumed that Abboud is a Middle Eastern immigrant, which she is not) that other people started to respond to her policy prescriptions as well.

“I’d have to say I agree,” Desiree Miller wrote in response to a post about raising the minimum wage.

“Do you really think that the corporation is going to willingly double their payroll without passing that cost on to the consumer?” Aaron Kuhne wrote.

Running for political office as a Muslim in 2017 — when nonprofit watchdog groups are recording spikes in anti-Muslim rhetoric and harassment across the country — can seem fraught or exceedingly stressful.

President Trump has painted Islam as a religion at odds with American values and Muslim refugees and other immigrants as potentially part of a Trojan-horse plot aiming to attack or destroy the United States from within.

Such political rhetoric has fueled noticeable spikes in hate crimes, as well as “hate incidents” — typically verbal attacks such as insults plastered on a Facebook page or hurled in the aisle of a grocery store that don’t rise to the level of a crime — said Brian Levin, a criminologist and hate-crimes expert at California State University at San Bernardino.

“When political leaders are perceived to make intolerant statements with respect to Islam or pursue political policies that may appear intolerant, we see a correlation in hate crimes over the short term,” Levin said.

The uptick in harassment has created a “siege mentality” in some Muslim communities, and particularly among recent immigrants, said Wa’el Alzayat, a former Obama administration official who is now the chief executive of Emgage, an organization that works to foster political participation and representation for American Muslims.

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But paradoxically, Alzayat added, the attacks appear also to have spurred an increase in Muslim political participation, including in the form of candidates such as Abboud, who says on her campaign website that the “verbal attacks” born of the 2016 presidential campaign spurred her to quit practicing law and return to advocacy work.

“There’s an awakening here,” said Alzayat, who has never met Abboud but says he will soon reach out to her. “With what happened in the last campaign and the anti-Muslim rhetoric, I think a lot of the Muslims are looking at America and they’re thinking, ‘Okay Mom and Dad, I know you’re worried about Iraq, but our own back yard is burning.’ I think the community is under siege, and a lot of people are responding by getting engaged.”

For Abboud, the first series of verbal attacks came in May, when a pair of right-wing militant groups, the Fraternal Order of Alt Knights and the Proud Boys, got word of a campaign event she had planned at a Phoenix restaurant and staged a protest outside. The armed demonstrators alarmed Abboud’s campaign staffers and drew the attention of police.

Even after working for years as the director of two Muslim advocacy groups, Abboud appeared to bristle at the idea of having to spend time on the campaign trail defending Islam or her personal religious beliefs. And it’s unclear how she plans to manage such challenges.

“If questions about my religion are relevant, then I will answer them,” she said.

But the candidate said she also “expected” such attacks to continue, as she said she would for any minority candidate in today’s America, and perhaps especially for a Muslim woman such as her.

The silver lining, she suggested, is that the backlash might fuel some necessary reckoning.

“This is part of what needs to happen in this country,” she said. “We need to have a conversation about what is an American and who gets to decide.”

It was after midnight Tuesday when Abboud finally went to bed after the initial wave of Facebook comments, thrusting her for the first time into the national spotlight. And it was around 5 a.m. Wednesday when she was awakened by her phone still pinging. By then, her campaign had gotten more attention than at any other point since she announced her candidacy in April.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) — who Abboud would run against if they both win their primaries — had joined the debate, too, defending her on Twitter. “Hang in there @deedra2018,” he wrote. “Sorry you have to put up with this. Lots of wonderful people across AZ. You’ll find them.”

Scores of other people from Arizona and beyond also jumped to Abboud’s defense, with one urging her to “ignore the haters” and some even pledging their votes.

“Ignore the ignorance and hatred, Deedra. Arizona NEEDS you. You have my vote!” wrote L.J. Roberts.