Before she was a U.S. Representative for Arizona and a U.S. Senate candidate, Martha McSally made her name as an Air Force pilot from Rhode Island who sued the Department of Defense in 2002 to avoid having to wear an abaya off-base while stationed in Saudi Arabia. But a year later, in a commencement speech at Rhode Island College (in which she says Rhode Island is her home state), she told an Islamophobic and tasteless joke that foreshadowed her anti-immigrant, xenophobic political career.
As the recipient of an honorary degree from Rhode Island College, a public institution located in Providence, McSally told graduates that she was thankful to be “home from Saudi Arabia.” After mispronouncing the name of the college’s president, she began her address noting that she’d spent roughly 500 days deployed there over the previous two-plus years. Affecting a mocking Saudi accent, she joked that she’d been there so often that, on her last trip there, a Saudi officer had seen her and said, “Ah, welcome home.”
“I said ‘I gotta find another line of work. This is not good,” she quipped. It went downhill from there.
She next talked about how poorly Saudi men treat women.
“But I saw something different this time. Previous times when I’ve been in Saudi Arabia, as most of you know, as a custom the women walk 5 to 10 feet behind the men. And you know, it’s because of their deference and where they stand in society. And you know, that’s just a common practice,” she recounted. “When I went back this time, what I saw was an exact reversal.”
The audience, likely thinking her story was sincere, applauded.
But McSally continued, “The women, when I went off base, were actually walking 5 to 10 feet in front of the men, all of the wives.”
“I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘I know we’ve been trying to bring about some change. Could it be that some radical revelation has come?'”
She then joked that she asked one of the women what had changed to cause this. “And she said… landmines,” McSally concluded.
While she acknowledged that this tasteless joke “wasn’t politically correct” and “making light of a very serious issue,” she explained that she “wanted to see if I could get your attention.”
This incident is emblematic of a career dotted with anti-Muslim statements and actions. In 2015, McSally voted for the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, a bill to temporarily halt and further restrict Syrian and Iraqi refugees to get into the United States. After Donald Trump’s 2017 Muslim ban order, she released a tepid statement, expressing concern about its lack of exceptions for green card holders, but agreeing with the president’s intentions, saying that “our own intelligence officials have expressed vulnerabilities with these processes,” therefore “taking a comprehensive look at them is prudent and should be expected of any new administration.” In her 2018 Senate kickoff announcement, she decried “PC politicians and their BS excuses,” and boasted, “I absolutely refused to bow down to Sharia law.”
As a candidate, she has actively worked to shed her previous reputation as a moderate, taking a new and strident anti-immigration tone. She fiercely opposed a clean bill to establish protections for children of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as kids, attacked Democrats pushing for protections for those DREAMers as “choosing illegals over our American troops and 9 million children,” and even warned that in addition to Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico, Arizona might need another border wall to keep immigrants from California from entering her state.
McSally concluded her Rhode Island College commencement speech by comparing herself to a biblical figure, Esther, “a story that has inspired me in the eight-year battle that I had to overturn [the Pentagon’s Saudi garment] policy.” But Esther is celebrated for her work advocating for and protecting marginalized people, while McSally’s 2003 speech and subsequent record show that she would much rather demonize them.