Now go back to that bland statistic you hear a lot these days: ‘about 10 per cent of France’s population is Muslim’. Give or take a million here, a million there, that’s broadly correct, as far as it goes. But the population spread isn’t even. And when it comes to those living in France aged 20 and under, about 30 per cent are said to be Muslim and in the major urban centres about 45 per cent. If it came down to street-by-street fighting, as Michel Gurfinkiel, the editor of Valeurs Actuelles, points out, ‘the combatant ratio in any ethnic war may thus be one to one’ — already, right now, in 2005. It is not necessary, incidentally, for Islam to become a statistical majority in order to function as one. At the height of its power in the 8th century, the ‘Islamic world’ stretched from Spain to India, yet its population was only minority Muslim. ~Mark Steyn, The Spectator (registration required)

Say what you will about Mark Steyn (and I could say quite a bit), but sometimes there are things so blatantly obvious that even he recognises them. He also occasionally manages to make a trenchant observation about the passing scene. Steyn makes the important distinction between what he calls “Islamification” (otherwise known as Islamicisation), which may be advanced by all kinds of action including riot and violence, and jihad, which is a particular kind of Islamic action.

He may go too far to say that the riots aren’t necessarily “about jihad.” Many of the Muslims in the riots may be “secular and Westernised and into drugs,” but it is these who are most susceptible to the appeal of a radical return to Islam. Strictly speaking, many of the rioters are not what we would readily recognise as jihadis in the sense that they are not strict religious fanatics. Then again, several of the September 11 terrorists were not necessarily the most abstemious characters, and jihadis have found a virtue of having members who can readily imitate Western habits. However, a Muslim’s moral laxity and Westernisation should not immediately be taken as proof that he has not accepted the concept of jihad as a way to legitimise violent cultural and political change.

Perhaps not unlike some modern Christians, who value Christianity because they believe it endorses their political or economic values or who endorse the just war tradition because they think it gives them a blank check for starting wars, these Westernised Muslims could latch on to the militant and violent components of Islamic teaching, central as they are to Islam and its history, and adopt the concept of jihad for their own specific purposes. It is one of the political strengths of Islam as a creed that it is extremely simple and capable of bearing myriad meanings because it is subject to no real institutional or doctrinal authority, and it is combined with a spirit and mentality of conflict and militancy that can be very seductive for young men bereft of purpose or meaning.

For non-Muslims to draw artificial lines and declare that, “such and such is jihad, and such and such is not” is to miss the point that all of a Muslim’s life is understood in terms of jihad, which is a struggle for Allah both spiritual and physical (and the two are not separable). Insofar as someone is a Muslim, and is conscious of being such, any political conflict in which he is involved takes on the aspect of jihad. Whereas Christian monastics might also speak of spiritual warfare, Islam makes no real differentiation between spiritual and physical warfare, and indeed as I understand it such a real differentiation would be considered a kind of hypocrisy. Unlike examples from Christian knighthood, where participation in warfare was understood as a kind of self-sacrifice and penance, Islamic physical warfare is cast in terms of subjugation and domination. It is part and parcel of the submission of the one who submits (Muslim) that he causes others submit to the rule of Islam.

Far from not being “about jihad,” the French intifada, like its Palestinian forerunner, could easily be importing the language and ideas of Islamic jihad to suit the perceived political needs of Muslims in France. Whether or not their jihad is consciously Islamist in exactly the sense that al-Qaeda’s is, it is jihad because it is a political struggle of Muslims and the language of jihad is the language of the tradition from which these Muslims are drawing their inspiration and identity. Arguably, just as religious and political duties overlap and are inextricably intertwined in Islam, any political struggle in which Muslims are involved will never really be outside the framework of “struggling in the path of Allah” and the physical and political violence inherent in that struggle from the beginning of Islamic history.