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The Occupation of Public Space through Religious and Political Events: How Senegalese Migrants Became a Part of Harlem, New York

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image of Journal of Religion in Africa

During the last twenty years, Senegalese migration has shifted from West African cities to France, from France to its European neighbour countries and finally towards the United States of America. Whereas the secular French state discourages religious display, especially within public space, the more community-oriented USA is far from opposed to religious expression in the public sphere. In this article, I analyze how Senegalese migrants who have grown up in secular states (Senegal and/or France) use American public space to demonstrate their political and religious identity through the organization of special events. Even though the migrants, notably the political and religious activists, take into consideration the cultural and political differences between their different places of residence, they follow continuous strategies across their translocal spaces. Special events like the Murid Parade in July or the Senegalese presidential election campaign in spring 2000 provide rich empirical data for the analysis of the complex interaction between Senegalese inside and outside their country, their translocal networks and their connections to the local situation in New York City. The latter includes the different inhabitants of Harlem and the local geographical setting, the representatives of the state and the politics of migration, as well as the Mayor and his political program. The recently opened House of Islam, founded by members of the Murid Sufi order in Harlem, shows how deeply the Senegalese in the US are already rooted. However, the annual religious event organized by the Murids is only one demonstration of identity politics. In order to illustrate the diversity of the community, I show how the events organized during the Senegalese presidential election campaign in 2000 in New York City take into consideration the complexity of the religious, political and economic identities of the American Senegalese.


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