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Morality at the Margins: Youth, Language, and Islam in Coastal Kenya

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Sarah Hillewaert, Fordham University Press, 2019

This book considers the day-to-day lives of young Muslims on Kenya’s island of Lamu, who live simultaneously on the edge and in the center. At the margins of the national and international economy and of Western notions of modernity, Lamu’s inhabitants nevertheless find themselves the focus of campaigns against Islamic radicalization and of Western touristic imaginations of the untouched and secluded.

What does it mean to be young, modern, and Muslim here? How are these denominators imagined and enacted in daily encounters? Documenting the everyday lives of Lamu youth, this ethnography explores how young people negotiate cultural, religious, political, and economic expectations through nuanced deployments of language, dress, and bodily comportment. Hillewaert shows how seemingly mundane practices—how young people greet others, how they walk, dress, and talk—can become tactics in the negotiation of moral personhood.

Morality at the Margins traces the shifting meanings and potential ambiguities of such everyday signs—and the dangers of their misconstrual. By examining the uncertainties that underwrite projects of self-fashioning, the book highlights how shifting and scalable discourses of tradition, modernity, secularization, nationalism, and religious piety inform changing notions of moral subjectivity. In elaborating everyday practices of Islamic pluralism, the book shows the ways in which Muslim societies critically engage with change while sustaining a sense of integrity and morality.

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