As a young girl, Shenaaz Janmohamed learned about social justice from stories of Karbala. The Iraqi city is a sacred site for Shia Muslims, and the location of battles against tyranny and oppression.
Today, the therapist, school social worker, and queer Muslim of color looked to Karbala when choosing the theme for the second volume of the Totally Radical Muslim zine.
A zine is a self-published print booklet, often filled with essays, poetry, photography, collages, and other forms of media. Totally Radical Muslims (TRM), which released its second volume last week, has provided an outlet for queer, transgender, and other radical and progressive Muslims in Oakland and beyond. Janmohamed is its founder and curator, working with a group of volunteers to produce the zines.
As Janmohamed explains, TRM is about reclaiming narratives.
“There’s so much misinformation about Muslims these days, and we’re deeply misunderstood,” she said, adding that it’s worse for radical Muslims. Those who identify as queer consider gender identity and sexual orientation fluid, a topic that may be considered controversial by most mainstream Muslims. “We’re just absent from a lot of discourse about Muslims,” she said. A zine provided a do-it-yourself solution for Janmohamed and her peers, a quick and accessible way to share stories with fellow Muslims and other progressive allies.
TRM’s new volume is titled “Karbala Fired Resistance Stories.” It touches on topics including anti-imperialist politics, loneliness, reclaiming identity, and the impact of war, xenophobia, and racism.
TRM’s first release, “Islamophobia: A Bitchin’ Zine,” was more tongue-in-cheek. “That idea was really kind of like, we’re here, we’re queer, hahaha,” Janmohamed said about volume one, which came out in August 2012.
“Karbala” has more depth, Janmohamed said. Filled with artwork, poetry, and writings from as far away as Mexico City, the zine is split into two sections. “Raised Fists” focuses on the impacts of war, especially from the point of view of Muslims separated from their homelands. “Open Hearts” shows how visible queer and trans Muslims are making pathways within their families, communities, and histories.
This time around, the TRM crew even collected stories from incarcerated contributors, young men of color who are organizing and resisting on the inside. “Finding out that our zine is reaching people on the inside of prisons has been so rewarding, because I feel like folks on the inside are at the forefront of so many struggles,” Janmohamed said. “We’re finding common ground.”
Maxwell Simon Abdullah, a trans man who recently returned to Islam, has a poem published in “Karbala.” He stumbled upon TRM on the blogging platform Tumblr and had no idea the zine was based in the East Bay when he submitted his work.
His poem touches on his conversion, internal homophobia, and feelings about religion in general. “I have found most queers that I know to be really jaded with religion, and that has had a negative impact on me, sort of my mental health,” he said. TRM let Abdullah deepen his understanding of Islam, which he says helped him get through the hard part of his mental health experience.
Karbala was released to the public at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California at an event emceed by Zahra Noorbakhsh. The comedian describes herself as a “pork-eating, alcohol-drinking, pre-marital sex having Muslim.” She met Janmohamed after a performance of her one-woman show, “All Atheists Are Muslims,” and soon thereafter, Janmohamed invited Noorbakhsh to join in on the zine’s production in its earliest days.
Noorbakhsh thinks young Muslims need a zine to be able to say what they feel and be who they are. As her own voice has gotten lost in the “media charge of the monolith,” she needed to find a release like TRM. Plus, the zine offers an outlet for artists. “It gives me a chance to try new material amongst the peer group that I don’t need to catch up before I try it,” Noorbakhsh said.
The zines are available for purchase at the group’s website, totallyradicalmuslims.com. “Karbala” costs $10, while “Islamophobia” is currently offered at pay-what-you-can prices, plus shipping fees. Money from the sales, plus additional money from a grant and grassroots fundraising, help the all-volunteer group produce the zine.
For queer, trans, and radical Muslims in Oakland, Janmohamed adds, their Muslim identity can take the backseat to their other identities. But Muslims in other parts of the country or the world aren’t necessarily afforded the same luxury. And TRM’s readers stretch beyond Oakland to other parts of the world.
“So I think people appreciate that, within our relative privilege here in the Bay Area, we are organizing and putting our stories out there,” she said.