Western democracies long ago assigned religion a subordinate role. The state claims sovereignty from citizen consent—not by appealing to divine right.
For many Muslims, religion and state legitimacy are inseparable, and throughout the Middle East and Africa, many are willing to die to destroy democratic governments that could subordinate the authority of Islam to secular governments. And ethnic rivalries are often cast in terms of religion.
Without democratic institutions that place individual freedoms above religion, it is hard to see how competing claims of historically conflicting ethnic groups can be resolved and civil wars ended. Nor animus toward the West and acts of terror stopped.
Neither economic engagement by the West nor American foreign aid can change those facts on the ground. Radical Islam is premised on widely held ideas, and ideas are tough to destroy with armies.
In the end, the United States must recognize it is in for a long slog fighting terrorism in the Middle East and Africa. No amount of national building and economic aid will change that, but sometimes it can make matters worse.
Sadly, armies and navies still trump economics. Americans will have to pay the price or face menacing threats to their security at home and interests abroad.
Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, national columnist and five-time winner of the MarketWatch best forecaster award. He tweets @pmorici1