Long has the notion of American Exceptionalism held to be a truth in the identity of the nation, both domestically and internationally. An experiment with democracy that has proven largely successful and an economy capable of dragging the planet from boom to bust, America stands alone as an unrivaled global power in modern times. To ask it’s citizens what makes their country so great, they might respond with a recitation of the constitution, a response of adherence to democratic principles and a faith in institutions. Logically then, as an American, an assumption would exist that spreading these principles and freedoms to other nations would allow them the same growth and prosperity. The experiment with liberalism has proven largely successful, save for recent potholes, in Southeast Asia, Europe and South America. But much the same as there is American Exceptionalism, can there be a unique form of exceptionalism belonging to Islamic Nations?

Attempts to install and sustain democratic systems of government over the years have proven largely unsuccessful. Exceptions exist – Turkey, Morocco and Israel lead the way, having recently been joined by Tunisia. Additionally, presidential elections are held in both Egypt and Syria, but with a caveat: Critics claim that the choice of citizens is limited by the lack of presence of true multi-party systems. The Arab Spring revolution brought hope to the region that a groundswell of support for democracy would take hold amongst the people and be sustained. But a crisis brought on to remove strongmen swiftly saw many nations have one face of authority replaced by another, who was often bloodier still.

A 2016 Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that an analysis of the 20 nations in the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) showed an average “democracy” score of 3.56/10 – meaning the average nation was considered an authoritarian regime. Of those 20, the official state religion in 16 is Islamic. Why does this divide exist? Three key principles to examine would be those that are understood as fundamental in democratic nations: robust institutions, separate from theological powers that could cede their importance (Church and State), a respect for human life and individual freedoms, and resiliency in the face of authoritarianism – after all, what is the value of democracy if it crumbles when the first strongman emerges promising salvation?

One fact has been rendered indisputable over the years since the dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate after the First World War: Islam is different. While the separation of Church and State arose in the primarily Christian West post-Enlightenment, Islam was crafting and refining modern Sharia law. The prophet Muhammad served as both the prophet and the head of state in the Quran.  His four successors, the caliphs, found much of their power based in their religious authority. Saudi Arabia uses the Quran as it’s constitution – the entire concept of ‘Mosque and State’ therein constitutes as attempting to push Western principles under the garb of universal applicability, one that was not a realistic option given the historical context and interwoven nature of religion and government in MENA. The very nature of Christianity, with the prophet dying to absolve a people of their sins, does not exist in Islamic traditions, where adherence to law and ritual is a necessity to be considered faithful.

So an institutional separation is, at best, unlikely. A respect for human life and individual freedoms – here, a debate emerges: Experts theorize that modern Islamism is as much a sociological battle as a fundamental one. Adherence to religious principles guides faith and decision-making. But no populated territory is free from the throes of ideological division – with the launches into the mainstream of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia, there is clear room for debate upon the ideological conservatism with which governments should rule.

A Pew Research Centre study published found that within the Islamic world, the populations of Muslims around the globe had varying opinions on a number of issues, from whether nations should be governed by Sharia law (99% agree in Afghanistan, only 8% in Azerbaijan), if radical Islamist groups such as ISIS should be viewed negatively (Unfavourable ratings ranged from 80% in Nigeria to 100% of respondents asked in Lebanon), and whether violence against those who oppose Islam is ever justified (Only 9% in Iraq say yes, contrasted with 40% in the Palestinian territories). Political division exists, but a general trend of respect for human life and individual freedoms emerges when respondents are polled.

As to resiliency in the face of authoritarianism, greater historical context is once again required: The last great unification of the Muslim World, the Ottoman Empire, dealt with lingering anger amongst the people over European colonialism. The imposition of  tanzimat by the government of the time was a strategy of centralizing power, codifying modern law and strengthening an authoritarian grip while removing the more fluid religious law of the land as the dominating ideology. In 1967, secularists saw the success of Israel as indication that religion had a place in government, and a power that had been lost in their world through the years. The belief emerged that a return to the spirit of the first generation of Muslims would renew the strength of the empire once again. Religious fundamentalists rose to power, crowing a return to former greatness. But without the heavy presence of Islamist history in the lives of youth, the populace did not possess the depths of understanding of the subtleties between obeying the spirit and the letter of the law. Thus, citizens are bound to an image of the world that no longer fits within the global reality, and the existence of sprawling, nepotistic bureaucracies financed by oil money become mechanisms to hold onto power while citizens place a degree of faith in governments typically reserved for religious worship. Sound familiar?

America famously cried in the era of Ronald Reagan that it’s key foe for power in the 20th century, the Soviet Union, would one day collapse under the weight of it’s authoritarian regime, who had stifled the voice of the people and imposed upon them a system of government that did not match their guiding principles of individual freedom and creativity. But those are the principles of America’s world, not all who live in it – perhaps an installation of democracy should require bothering to determine what rights those nations hold most dear before burying soldiers and flags in their ground.