The Quran Was a Radical Zine, Too

We thought we were doing something new. Something fresh and cutting edge. But something old too, building on “our” punk DIY roots. At one of the first meetings in my Oakland apartment two years ago, sitting around the dining table covered with fruits and dates, we passed around our collections of zines. These were those black and white zines. Those hand written zines. Those photocopied and stapled zines.  These were zines that would magically appear in our postal mailbox, and how you got on the distro list you have no clue. That feeling of a personalized note slipped in to your envelope was nothing short of special.

We too would create a DIY Zine that would combat islamophobia in the most revolutionary way – through poetry and prose infused with love from the untold Muslims on the margins.

That was our vision for the zines we would create from the Totally Radical Muslims.

This summer, at Los Angeles’ bimonthly Asian American poetry spot Tuesday Night Café the Gidras made an appearance and it was the first time I heard about this collective driven publication. A short documentary was shown telling the story of the radical newspaper Gidra created by a group of students out of the University of California, Los Angeles. They dubbed themselves “the voice of the Asian American movement” and published monthly from April 1969 to April 1974. The only month they missed was the month when Cambodia was being bombed and they were out busy protesting. They had artists that created political images to go with the pieces and they talked about how the art was just as important as the piece that was written. They used lightboxes and had to physically cut and paste words. Gidra, as described by one of the writers Robert Nakamura, was not being “about art, it wasn’t about self-expression, it wasn’t even about breaking stereotypes to the majority society. We wanted to break stereotypes to ourselves.” (Kawashima, 2012)

Three of the activists were at the documentary showing – they are older now, leaders in the community that I’ve worked with though I never knew of their past. It was heartening to see that their trajectory from student organizers to community leaders still had those radical roots. As they talked about their collective process and the difficulty of creating a newsletter with no hierarchy, I laughed. It was just like the collective process of many of the groups I worked with, including in the creation of the Totally Radical Muslims zines.

As I sat there, my mind wandered to the founding of the Indian American revolutionary space of the Ghadar Party, now 100 years since their inception in 1913. Back then, the Ghadar Party movement of South Asian individuals building to free the Indian subcontinent of British colonization while living abroad in San Francisco started with a newsletter. Just like Gidra. “The Ghadar: An Enemy of the British Rule” had a secular message to stir up rebellion in India and was first published in San Francisco November 1, 1913. (Ghadar Party, 2013) With members internationally placed in the South Asian diaspora, the distribution of the newsletter was so radical that their delivery method wasn’t just on paper, it was aural – Ghadar activists would memorize the words of the newsletter,  memorize the addresses of where it was to be delivered, and rewrite the newsletter – all to avoid being caught and persecuted. This radical newsletter was simply a modern day version of a “Zine”, radical and DIY through and through.

That got me thinking to UC Berkeley-based “The Bridges,” a publication from the 1970s for and by Indian students, full of news, poetry and art within its pages. And that got me thinking of the Black Panther Party’s newspaper “The Black Panther,” started in 1967 and often with beautiful cover artwork by Oakland based Emory Douglas (Black Panther Newspapers – Index). Then, I thought of the Punjabi poetry carved into the walls of Angel Island in San Francisco that from 1910-1940 served as the main processing center for Asian immigrants. The walls are covered with layers upon layers of poetry carved into the walls in various Asian languages, written poetry as detainees waited for months on end. The Bridges, The Black Panther, the poetry on walls – those were all versions of zines, forms of written radical expression.

Rewind hundreds of years —  I thought,

The Quran? Well, shit. That was a radical zine too. So radical it couldn’t even be written – it had to be memorized lyrically and passed down from person to person.

They’d “perform” in spoken word spaces, spreading the gospel, projecting The Words like poets on open mics with dim lights. So radical it was poetic, literally. The Quran was the first radical Muslim zine.

Fast forward to the present day – I thought of the ethnic/religion specific blogs I had written on such as Sepia Mutiny, Taqwacore Webzine or Racialicious and of course, this new print zine project with the Totally Radical Muslims. This isn’t something totally new. As Totally Radical Muslims, we are not just creating words for ourselves – we are building on a legacy of radical zine culture of people of color seeded in California. We are building on a legacy of using arts, prose and poetry to shift the culture – in using arts as a tool of resistance and community. We weren’t letting the mainstream media define our words for us – we were voicing ourselves from the margins and recentering our words in this movement. Sure back then they called it “newsletters” or “magazines,” but blogs and zines are simply the modern day DIY version of spreading counternarratives. It was a rush of empowerment, synapsis firing gone crazed, when those connections were made.

As I sat that night watching the Gidra activists speak, I had the 1st draft of the Totally Radical Muslims Zine Volume #2 on my lap. I was planning on editing it later that night and had printed up a copy to do so. I found it symbolically important to be holding these words of radical activists of 2013 in my hand as radical activists of 1969 spoke. “Other people at the time were saying, ‘Power to the People!'” one of the Gidra activists said. “But we? We weren’t using that. Our driving force to the creation of the newsletter was ‘Power to the Imagination!'”

As I personally move forward on my journey to not just be a civic engagement organizer but to also be a counterculture arts activist and counternarrative storyteller –essentially, reimagining radical activism for me – I will hold these legacies close to my heart.

They are my histories that were once taken away from me. But may they inspire my imagination from here on forward.

How awesome is this reflection by Taz on the roots of zine-making and all the imagination, expression, culture-creation, and artistry  that comes together when we stand up to speak our authentic truths and reclaim our histories (and herstories)?  Totally Radical Muslims as a zine and creative collective inspires us with the power of DIY art and expression. Can you imagine the possibilities?

Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed is an activist, storyteller, and politico based in Los Angeles currently working as the Voter Engagement Manager at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles. She was a long-time writer for Sepia Mutiny, and was recently published in the anthology “Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women” and both zines from Totally Radical Muslims.  Taz also organizes with Bay Area Solidarity Summer and South Asians for Justice – Los Angeles