Alija Izetbegovic

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Alija Izetbegović, former president of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Alija Izetbegović (August 8, 1925 - October 19, 2003) was a Bosnian Muslim activist, philosopher, and politician, president of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1990 to 1996 and member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1996 to 2000, and author of several books, most notably Islam Between East and West. He was a controversial figure in the former Yugoslavia and was often denounced by Serb and Croat politicians for his alleged support for Islamic fundamentalism. Many aspects of Izetbegović's life remain strongly disputed between all three sides in the Bosnian War and his record has come under intense scrutiny, particularly in the light of war crimes allegations.


Izetbegović as dissident and Muslim activist

Izetbegović was born in the northern Bosnian town of Bosanski Šamac, one of five children born to a distinguished but impoverished family descended from former Ottoman aristocrats from Belgrade who moved to Bosnia after Serbia gained independence from the Ottoman Empire. His grandfather, Alija, was the mayor of Bosanski Samac. His father, an accountant, declared bankruptcy in 1927 and the family moved to Sarajevo. Izetbegović became closely involved in Bosnian Muslim society as he grew up during the 1930s and 1940s. However, he received a secular education, eventually graduating from law school in Sarajevo.

In 1941, when Izetbegović was 16, Nazi Germany invaded Yugoslavia and incorporated Bosnia into the "Independent State of Croatia" ruled by the fascist Ustase movement. The largely Croatian Ustase, the Serbian Chetniks and the Communist partisans of Josip Broz Tito all vied for the support of Bosnia's Muslims.

During the war, Izetbegović joined the Young Muslims (Mladi muslimani), an organisation headed by the conservative cleric Mehmed Handžić. It advocated a "purer" form of Islam and could be described as a Bosniak nationalist movement. As such, while it was not officially pro-fascist in orientation, the Young Muslims generally supported the Nazi/Ustase efforts to promote a Bosniak national identity in opposition to the Chetnik and Partisan guerrillas.

Immediately after the war, Tito's government undertook a severe crackdown on ethnic, religious and non-Communist political activity, executing tens of thousands and imprisoning hundreds of thousands more. Izetbegović was caught in the net in 1946: he had joined with a fellow Muslim activist, Nedžib Šaćirbegović, to publish a dissident Islamic journal entitled Mudžahid (from the Arabic mujahid, in English Mujahideen, meaning "Soldier of God"). This was eventually shut down by the Yugoslav secret police and its publishers imprisoned. Izetbegović himself was sentenced to prison for three years for anti-communist activities, including "statements against the Soviet Union". He was released in 1949 and began studying at the University of Sarajevo where he gained a BS in Law in 1956. He worked for most of the next 30 years as a lawyer, but continued to promote an essentially Bosniak and Islamic viewpoint, publishing a number of dissident works during this period.

One of Izetbegović's most consistent concerns as a dissident, and later as President, related to the casual way in which Islam was practised in Yugoslavia and campaigned for a more purist approach. He argued that Bosnia's Muslims needed to be more rigorous in their practice of Islam, pointing out that their Bosniak identity was defined by their Islamic adherence. He warned that if they did not make more of an effort to differentiate themselves, they would risk being submerged by Croatian and Serbian nationalism. Much of his activity during his years as a dissident concerned attempts to define (or perhaps redefine) what it meant to be a Yugoslav Muslim.

In 1970, Izetbegović published a manifesto entitled The Islamic Declaration, a work which contributed greatly to his later portrayal as an Islamic fundamentalist. He highlighted the decayed state of Islam and called for an religious and political regeneration across the Muslim world, although the book made no reference to Bosnia. In two particularly controversial passages, he declared that "there can be neither peace nor coexistence between the Islamic faith and non-Islamic social and political institutions" and that "the Islamic movement must and can, take over political power as soon as it is morally and numerically so strong that it can not only destroy the existing non-Islamic power, but also to build up a new Islamic one". He promoted the idea of a "united Islamic community" in which non-Muslims would have their rights guaranteed.

From an Islamic point of view, this was nothing new - many similar manifestos were circulating in the Muslim countries - and it was very much in accordance with traditional Qur'anic principles. It was also not a programme of Islamic fundamentalism in a sense that is generally understood by fundamentalists themselves: Izetbegović explicitly accepted innovation and the "achievements of Euro-American civilization." He spoke approvingly of the high educational and economic standards prevailing in the West and urged that "instead of hating the West, let us proclaim cooperation instead of confrontation." However, his arguments were fundamentally at odds with both the anti-nationalist ideology of Communist Yugoslavia and with the later nationalist sentiment in Croatia and Serbia, which emphasized both nations' Christian heritage. Islam was widely perceived by non-Bosniak Yugoslavs as an alien influence introduced under the Turkish occupation, so Izetbegović's call for an Islamic revival came to be seen as a threat by many in the countries' Catholic and Orthodox communities.

Izetbegović wrote what is generally regarded as his major work, Islam Between East and West, in 1980. He declared that this was not a "book of theology" but a serious attempt to define the "place of Islam in the general spectrum of ideas." Like The Islamic Declaration, it focused on the importance of Islam and the need to serve God; it consisted primarily of a dialectical argument placing Islam as the synthesis of two opposing poles in human ideals, which he placed under the headings of "Moses" and "Jesus". Unfortunately for Izetbegović, its appearance coincided with a spate of nationalist unrest following the death of Tito, which resulted in a widespread crackdown on nationalists and dissidents across Yugoslavia. Nationalists from many parts of Yugoslavia were tried and imprisoned for activities deemed harmful to Yugoslav "brotherhood and unity."

In April 1983, Izetbegović and twelve other Muslim activists including Melika Salihbegović and Hasan Čengić were tried before a Bosnian court for a variety of offences, principally "hostile activity inspired by Muslim nationalism", "association for purposes of hostile activity" and "hostile propaganda." Specifically, the defendants were accused of intending to create "an ethnically pure Muslim Bosnia-Herzegovina," an assertion based chiefly on Izetbegović's Islamic Declaration. Izetbegović was further accused of organizing a visit to a Muslim congress in Iran. All of those tried were convicted and Izetbegović was sentenced to 14 years in prison. The verdict was strongly criticised by Western human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Helsinki Watch, which pointed out that the accused were not charged with either using or advocating violence. The following May, the Bosnian Supreme Court conceded the point with an announcement that "some of the actions of the accused ... did not have the characteristics of criminal acts" and reduced Izetbegović's sentence to 12 years. He was pardoned in 1988 as communist rule faltered and was released from prison, but not before he had suffered serious and lasting damage to his health. The trial had another unfortunate consequence: it was widely perceived within Yugoslavia as a trial of Islam as a political system, contributing to a growing paranoia about the trustworthiness of the country's Muslims. Nationalist politicians were to capitalise on this in the 1990s as Yugoslavia descended into civil war. [1] (

Izetbegović as president and war leader

The introduction of a multi-party system in Yugoslavia at the end of the 1980s prompted Izetbegović and other Bosniak activists to establish a political party, the Party of Democratic Action (Stranka Demokratske Akcije, or SDA) in 1989. It had a largely Muslim character; similarly, the other principal ethnic groups in Bosnia, the Serbs and Croats, also established ethnically based parties. (The Communist Party renamed itself the Party of Democratic Changes.) The SDA won the largest share of the vote, 33% of the seats, with the next runners-up being nationalist ethnic parties representing Serbs and Croats. Fikret Abdić won the popular vote for president among the Muslim candidates, with 44% of the vote, Izetbegović closely behind with 37%. According to the Bosnian constitution, the first two candidates of each of the three constitutient nations would be elected to a seven-member multi-ethnic rotating presidency (with two Croats, two Serbs, two Muslims and one Yugoslav); a Croat took the post of prime minister and a Serb the presidency of the Assembly. Abdić agreed to stand down as the Muslim candidate for the Presidency and Izetbegović became President with the support of the Bosnian Serb leadership. The two men later came into conflict during the Bosnian war.

Bosnia's power-sharing arrangements broke down very quickly as ethnic tensions grew after the outbreak of fighting between Serbs and Croats in neighboring Croatia. Although Izetbegović was to due to hold the presidency for only one year according to the constitution, this arrangement was initially suspended due to "extraordinary circumstances" and was eventually abandoned altogether during the war as the Serb and Croat parties abandoned the government (although many individual Serbs and Croats continued to work and fight for it).

When fighting broke out in Slovenia and Croatia in the summer of 1991, it was immediately apparent that Bosnia would soon become embroiled in the conflict. Izetbegović initially proposed a loose confederation to preserve a unitary Bosnian state and strongly urged a peaceful solution. He did not, however, subscribe to the "peace at all costs" view and commented in February 1991 that "I would sacrifice peace for a sovereign Bosnia-Herzegovina ... but for that peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina I would not sacrifice sovereignty." By the start of 1992 it had become apparent that the rival nationalist demands were fundamentally incompatible: the Bosniaks and Croats sought an independent Bosnia while the Serbs wanted it to remain in a rump Yugoslavia dominated by Serbia. Izetbegović publicly complained that he was being forced to ally with one side or the other, vividly characterising the dilemma by comparing it to having to choose between leukaemia and a brain tumour.

In January of 1992, Portuguese diplomat Jos Cutileiro drafted a plan that would turn Bosnia into a triethnic cantonal state. This would later become known as the Lisbon Agreement. Initially, all three sides signed up to the agreement, Izetbegović for the Bosniaks, Radovan Karadžić for the Bosnian Serbs and Mate Boban for the Bosnian Croats. Some two weeks later, Izetbegović withdrew his signature and declared his opposition to any type of division of Bosnia, supposedly encouraged by the then US ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmerman. This aim of a united Bosnia under the control of a central government in Sarajevo (seen as Muslim domination by Bosnian Serbs and Croats) would become both Izetbegović's war cry and aim.

In February 1992, Izetbegović called a national referendum on independence for Bosnia, despite warnings from the Serbian members of the presidency that any move to independence would result in the Serbian-inhabited areas of Bosnia seceding to remain with the rump Yugoslavia. The referendum was boycotted by Serbs, who regarded it as an unconstitutional move, but achieved a 99.4% vote in favour on a 67% turnout (which almost entirely constituted of the Bosniak and Croat communities). The Bosnian parliament, already vacated by the Bosnian Serbs, formally declared independence from Yugoslavia on February 29 and Izetbegović announced the country's independence on March 3. It did not take effect until April 7, 1992, when the European Union and United States recognised the new country. Sporadic fighting between Serbs and government forces occurred across Bosnia in the run-up to international recognition. Izetbegović appears to have gambled that the international community would send a peacekeeping force upon recognising Bosnia in order to prevent a civil war, but this did not happen. Instead, war immediately broke out across the country as Bosnian Serb and Yugoslav Army forces took control of large areas of Bosnia against the opposition of poorly-equipped government security forces.

For the next three years, Izetbegović lived precariously in a besieged Sarajevo surrounded by Bosnian Serb forces. He denounced the failure of Western countries to reverse what he termed "Serbian aggression" and turned instead to the Islamic world, with which he had already established relations during his days as a dissident. The Bosnian government received money, arms and a number of volunteers from a number of Muslim countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Libya. The latter caused particular controversy: foreign fighters, styling themselves "mujahiddin," turned up in Bosnia around 1993. They quickly attracted heavy criticism, who considered their presence to be evidence of violent Islamic fundamentalism at the heart of Europe. The German magazine Der Spiegel claimed that Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda guerrillas visited Bosnia in 1993 and met Izetbegović when he inspected a unit of Islamic volunteer fighters. However, the fundamentalist Islamists became unpopular even with many of the Bosniak population. Although Izetbegović regarded them as symbolically valuable as a sign of the Islamic world's support for Bosnia, they appear to have made little military difference and became a major political liability. Izetbegović's defence minister, Hasan Čengić, was closely associated with overseas fundamentalists and his dismissal in 1996 was a major US demand/condition for the funding and equipping of the Bosnian Federation Army.

Izetbegović consistently promoted the idea of a multi-ethnic Bosnia, which in the circumstances seemed a hopeless strategy. The Bosnian Croats, disillusioned with the Sarajevo government and supported militarily and financially by the Croatian government, increasingly turned to establishing their own ethnically-based state of "Herceg-Bosna" in the Croat-populated regions of the country. The Bosnian Croats pulled out of the Sarajevo government and fighting broke out in 1993. In most areas local armistices were signed between the Serbs and Croats (Kresevo, Vares, Jajce) and in two areas between the Bosniaks and Serbs (Cazin and near Mostar for a short period) while in some the Bosniaks and Croats continued to fight only against the Serbs (notably Maglaj). Bosnia's war thus never truly became three-sided but had three sides which shifted allegiances endlessly. Adding to the general confusion, Izetbegović's former colleague Fikret Abdić established an "Autonomous State of Western Bosnia" in opposition to the Sarajevo government. Abdić's faction was eventually routed by the Bosnian Army. By this time, Izetbegović's government controlled only about 25% of the country and represented principally the Bosniak community.

In mid-1993, Izetbegović agreed to a peace plan that would divide Bosnia along ethnic lines but continued to insist on a unitary Bosnia government from Sarajevo and on the allocation to the Bosniaks of a large percentage of Bosnia's territory. The war between the Bosniaks and Croats was eventually ended by a truce brokered with the aid of the Americans in March 1994, following which the two sides collaborated more closely against the Serbs. From around this time onwards, NATO became increasingly involved in the conflict with occasional "pinprick" bombings conducted against the Bosnian Serbs, generally following violations of ceasefires and the no-fly zone over Bosnia. The Bosnian Croat forces benefitted indirectly from the military training given to the Croatian Army by the American military consultancy Military Professional Resources, Inc. In addition, the Croatians provided considerable quantities of weaponry to the Bosnian Croats and much smaller amounts to the Bosnian Army, despite a UN weapons embargo. Most of the Bosnian Army's supply of weapons was air-lifted from the Islamic world, specifically Iran - an issue which became the subject of some controversy and a US congressional investigation in 1996.

In September 1993, the Congress of Bosnian Muslim Intellectuals adopted the term Bosniak instead of the previously used Muslim. Some within the other nationalities objected to the name as they saw it a tactic to dominate Bosnia. Izetbegović, who previously opposed the name Bosniak, now fully supported it.

In August 1995, following the Srebrenica massacre, NATO launched an intensive two-week bombing campaign which destroyed the Bosnian Serb command and control system. This allowed the Croatian forces and Bosniak forces to overrun many Bosnian Serb-held areas of the country, producing a roughly 50/50 split of the territory between the two sides. The offensive came to a halt not far from the Bosnian Serb capital of Banja Luka.

With the Croats having achieved their military objectives, the Serbs facing disaster and the Bosniaks militarily exhausted, the parties agreed to meet at Dayton, Ohio to negotiate a peace treaty under the supervision of the United States. Crucially, the Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs were left out of the negotiations; their interests were represented by Croatia's President Tuđman and Serbia's President Milošević respectively. Izetbegović represented the internationally recognised (but Bosniak-dominated) Bosnian Government.

Izetbegović after the war

After the Bosnian war was formally ended by the Dayton peace accord in November 1995, Izetbegović became co-president of Bosniak-Croat Federation, loosely linked by a weak central government with the Bosnian Serb Republic. His party's power declined after the international community installed a High Representative to oversee affairs of state, with more power than the presidents or parliaments of either the Bosniak-Croat or Serb entities. He stepped down in October 2000 at the age of 74, citing his bad health. However, Izetbegović remained popular with the Bosniak public, who nicknamed him "Dedo" or Grandpa. His endorsement helped his party to bounce back in the elections of 2002. He died in October 2003 of heart disease complicated by injuries suffered in a fall at home.

Izetbegović seemed to be the main loser of the 1995 Dayton agreement and was highly critical of the actions of the international community, which he accused of sacrificing the interests of the Bosniaks. However, he outlasted his rivals Franjo Tuđman of Croatia and Slobodan Milošević of Serbia, and the Dayton agreement endorsed his goal of retaining the territorial integrity of Bosnia. Although he eventually endorsed the creation of largely autonomous ethnically-based republics within Bosnia, the United Nations took on the task of re-integrating the country and reversing the effects of ethnic cleansing. It remains to be seen whether this process will succeed and how durable it will be.

Izetbegović was perceived internationally as being a more moderate figure than either Tuđman or Milošević, despite his involvement with foreign Islamic fundamentalists. He was clearly not, however, a western-style democrat and his brand of ethnic and religious nationalism alienated many non-Bosniaks. Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy who negotiated the Dayton accord, comments in his memoir To End A War that Izetbegović "saw politics as a perpetual struggle. He had probably never thought seriously about what it might mean to run a real country in peacetime... He was a devout Muslim, although not the Bosnian ayatollah that his enemies portrayed. But although he paid lip service to the principles of a multiethnic state, he was not the democrat that some supporters in the West saw. He reminded me a bit of Mao Tse-tung and other radical Chinese communist leaders — good at revolution, poor at governance."

Carla Del Ponte has stated that had he not died when he did, Izetbegović may have faced charges arising out of war crimes committed by Bosnian government forces. The Bosnian Serbs and Croats twice petitioned the war crimes tribunal at The Hague to indict him on charges of genocide, violations of the customs of war and other issues. No indictment was issued.

Izetbegović was married to Halida Repovac and they had three children Lejla, Sabina and Bakir. The Spanish newspaper El Mundo declared him "Person of the Year" in 1995. He has received the "Reward from King Feysal" and a medal from "The Center For Democracy, Washington." His most famous book outside Yugoslavia was Islam Between East And West, which has been published widely in a number of languages since its release in 1984. Other published works include The Islamic Declaration, Problems of Islamic Renaissance, My Escape to Freedom, Notes from Prison, 1983-1988 and most recently the memoirs Inescapable Questions: Autobiographical Notes.


  • Do we want the Muslim peoples to break out of the cycle of dependence, backwardness and poverty? ... Then we can clearly show the way which leads to this goal: the generating of Islam in all areas of personal individual life, in the family and society, through the renewal of Islamic religious thought and the creation of a unified Islamic community from Morocco to Indonesia. - From "The Islamic Declaration" (p. 5, link below.)
  • The idea of Islamic renewal, which understands Islam as capable not only of educating human beings but also of ordering the world, will always have two types of people as its opponents: conservatives who want the old forms, and modernists who want someone else's forms. - ibid., p. 8
  • The briefest definition of the Islamic order defines it as a unity of religion and law, upbringing and power, ideal and interest, the spiritual community and the state, willingness and force... An Islamic society without an Islamic authority is incomplete and without power; Islamic government without Islamic society is either utopia or violence. Generally speaking, a Muslim does not exist as a sole individual. If he wishes to live and survive as a Muslim, he must create an environment, a community, a system. - ibid., p. 26
  • There can be no peace or coexistence between the Islamic faith and non-Islamic societies and political institutions. The failure of these institutions to function and the instability of these regimes in Muslim countries, manifest in frequent changes and coups d'tat, is most often the consequence of their a priori opposition to Islam, as the fundamental and foremost feeling of the people in those countries. - ibid., p. 30
  • There are immutable Islamic principles which order relations between people, but there is no Islamic economic, social or political structure which cannot be changed... Nothing which can make the world a better place can be rejected out of hand as non-Islamic; ... In order to be Islamic, a solution must fulfill two conditions: it must be maximally efficient and maximally humane. ibid., p. 31
  • Islam contains the principle of the umma, i.e. a tendency towards the unification of all Muslims in a single community - religious, cultural and political. Islam is not a nationality, but it is the supranationality of this community. - ibid., p. 36
  • The upbringing of the people, and particularly means of mass influence - the press, radio, television, and film - should be in the hands of people whose good Islamic moral and intellectual authority is indisputable. - ibid., p. 42
  • Islam must take the initiative of recognizing motherhood as a social function. Harems must be abolished. No one has the right to refer to Islam as a reason to keep women disenfranchised: abuse of this kind must be brought to an end. Such attitudes do not represent a Western feminism, which has displayed a tendency to impose the measures, whims and mastery of a depraved element among the female sex. Neither is this equality in the European sense. It is an underlining of the equal value of men and women, together with the underlining of the differences between them, which should be preserved. - ibid., p. 47
  • In the struggles for the Islamic order, all means are permissible except one: crime. No one has the right to defile the good name of Islam by the uncontrolled and superfluous use of force. The Islamic community should once more confirm that justice is one of its keystones... Formula: the aim justifies the means has become the cause of numberless crimes. A noble aim cannot comman unworthy means... - ibid., p. 49
  • The Islamic order can only be established in countries where Muslims represent the majority of the population. If this is not the case, the Islamic order is reduced to mere power (as the other element - an Islamic society - is missing) and may turn to violence. The non-Muslim minorities within an Islamic state, on condition that they are loyal, enjoy religious freedom and all protection. - ibid., p. 49
  • When considering these matters, the dilemma inevitably arises - albeit only for a moment - that a shorter way to the Islamic order would be by taking power... This is mere temptation. History does not relate any true revolution which came from power. All began with education and meant in essence a moral summons. - ibid., p. 53
  • There is no secular principle, and the State must be for Muslims the scrupulous expression of the moral and conceptual pillar of the religion. - From "The Islamic Declaration".
  • Islam is the best, but we Muslims are not the best. The West is neither corrupted not degenerate. It is strong, well-educated, and organized. Their schools are better than ours. Their cities are cleaner than ours. The level of respect for human rights in the West is higher, and the care for the poor and less capable is better organized. Westerners are usually responsible and accurate in their words. Instead of hating the West, let us proclaim cooperation instead of confrontation. - Alija Izetbegović, cited in "The Two Faces of Islam" by Stephen Schwartz

Links and references

de:Alija Izetbegović fr:Alija Izetbegovitch hr:Alija Izetbegović nl:Alija Izetbegovic


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