For decades, U.S. foreign policy discourse has been haunted by the idea that there is something categorically different about Islamist political parties. So much so that they need to be thought about, treated, and engaged differently than other political groups with equally strong ideological commitments — like capitalists, leftists, or green parties. In practice this has led to an assumption that the United States has generally been unwilling to do business with Islamists as a matter of policy. While Iran’s 1979 revolution no doubt looms large as a specter here, the policy orientation in question actually traces back most directly to a famous dictum offered by Ed Djerejian — then Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs — in 1992. This was in the aftermath of an Algerian election in which Islamists had been poised to win a landslide victory only to see the results annulled by the country’s army. An Islamist victory at the ballot box, Djerejian argued, would likely have proven to be a case of “one man, one vote, one time.” That is, Islamists would make instrumental use of elections to capture the state, but then dismantle the democratic system once in power to ensure they could never be removed.
The reality of U.S. policy practice around the question of Islamist engagement, however, has always been more complex. We tend to remember and point to those incidents and moments that seem to confirm the general rule of U.S. animosity toward Islamists. Washington’s reaction to the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, in which Hamas won a controlling majority, is frequently cited as a prime example of this orientation. But even here things are more complicated than they perhaps seem. While many observers saw the U.S. reaction as evidence that the United States cannot do business with Islamists, the consternation in Washington actually stemmed from a combination of the fact that a legally designated terrorist group was poised to form the Palestinian Authority’s government — with all manner of entailing complications for U.S. financial assistance and diplomatic relations — and the usual concerns about Israel and the collapse of the United States’ preferred Fatah faction.