Alija Izetbegovic (President of Bosnia)

There have been many prominent figures in the history of Bosnia. One of the most significant politicians and statesmen in the country’s Muslim history of more than half a millennium is Alija Izetbegović. One of the factors that rank him among Bosnia and Herzegovina’s great and interesting figures is the fact that he became a statesmen with perhaps the most modest of resources and opportunities a statesman has ever had at his disposal. 


Alija Izetbegović’s life was typical of a child born into a middle class Bosnian family. He was born in Bosanski Šamac on 8 August 1925, but when he was two, his family moved to Sarajevo. It was here, in the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina, that Alija Izetbegović completed his primary school education and the famous First Boys’ Gymnasium high school. He then enrolled to study agronomy, but after three years he transferred to the Law Faculty, from which he graduated.  

Alija Izetbegović’s parents had five children, two sons and three daughters. Alija was the oldest son, but not their oldest child, for he had two older sisters. His father was seriously wounded in World War II on the Italian front at Piavi, and was bedridden for the last ten years of his life. Alija Izetbegović always emphasized, with great respect, the care and concern with which his mother looked after his father, her almost totally disabled husband. 

Alija Izetbegović’s forebears in the Ottoman Empire were Bosniac business people, merchants and soldiers. Family tradition recounts that his Bosniac family moved to Bosnia from Belgrade in the late 19th century, and that Alija’s grandfather was a Bosnian soldier in Istanbul who married a Turkish woman, Sedika, from Iskjudar. 

 Alija Izetbegović’s father belonged to a family that had once been very well off and engaged in trade. However, one of Izetbegović’s father's business enterprises failed, and their move to Sarajevo meant an even harder life between the two world wars. 

In his memoirs, Alija Izetbegović refers to his mother as a particularly pious woman, and emphasizes the fact that her piety was a crucial factor in his coming to love his faith. While he was a child, his mother would wake him for sabah, going in the early hours of the morning to the nearby mahala mosque in Sarajevo. He often recalled how the imam recited Surah al-Rahman from the Qur’an at sabah prayers, a surah the young Alija was particularly fond of and the rhymes of which continued to echo in his memory. 



Between the two world wars, Bosnia and Herzegovina passed through turbulent political times. It was in such times that Alija Izetbegović grew into a young man seeking his place and purpose in the midst of the bitter conflicts between the many different and competing ideologies of the idea: nationalism, communism, fascism, capitalism, socialism, pan-Islamism. Under the influence of various leftist and atheist papers and pamphlets, Alija Izetbegović even doubted his faith in good for a short while during his youth. 



And yet, despite powerful communist propaganda, Izetbegović could not agree that God was on the side of the exploiters and the soulless rich. The principle of responsibility is the first value of faith in God that Izetbegović encountered as a young man. Fundamental belief in God teaches everyone, be they kings or commoners, to be responsible. Faith in God and its concomitant responsibility for human deeds helped Izetbegović to discover within himself a new believer, a young man who had recovered from the brief and fashionable leftist disease and communist outcry against God and the heavens. 



In the later years of his youth, Izetbegović read works of philosophy, and was particularly influenced by Bergson (l'Evolution créatrice), Kant (Critique of Pure Reason), and Oswald Spengler (The Decline of the West). 



All those who later kept company with Izetbegović recall his striking accounts of World War II, most of which he spent in Sarajevo. He belonged neither to the fascist self-styled Independent State of Croatia nor to Tito’s Partisans. During World War II he helped Muslim refugees who had come to Sarajevo from eastern Bosnia as they fled from the Chetniks. To avoid serving in the army of the Independent State of Croatia, in 1944 he left Sarajevo for Posavina, his native Sava valley region. 


A few months before the fall of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1941 Izetbegović had made contact with the Young Muslims group, consisting of Bosniac Muslim students in Sarajevo, Zagreb and elsewhere, attracted by their views on Islam and its place in society. 


There are many books, studies, articles and essays on the Young Muslims in Bosnia, as well as books and articles written by the Young Muslims themselves. Some general information on the organization or movement can be extracted from this relative wealth of material. The organization was founded in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1939 and was in effect the only organization of Bosniac intellectuals and youth founded between the two wars independent of the Islamic Community, but which based its operations and programme on what is now known, in Islamist theory, as political or ideological Islam. This was from the very start the determinant of the Young Muslims’ attitude to the official ulema in Bosnia and Herzegovina at that time and the virtual monopoly they then enjoyed over the interpretation of the symbolic wealth of Islam. The Young Muslims were a challenge to the ulema just as the ulema themselves, and their inertia, were to the Young Muslims. 



The ulema could with justification accuse the secular Muslim intelligentsia that matured in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the first half of the 20th century and which turned, in the quest for its own ideological world view, to the various European isms of the day in politics, science, literature and culture (communism, socialism, nationalism, capitalism, evolutionism, symbolism, realism and so on), of betraying Islam. 


Now, however, with the appearance of the Young Muslims in 1939 and later, the ulema themselves were confronted with the accusation that it was the ulema themselves who had betrayed Islam. With the emergence onto the ideological scene in Bosnia and Herzegovina of the Young Muslims, there began a corrective tension within the Islamic scene between the forces that regarded Islam as their spiritual point of departure. 



Of course, in the first half of the twentieth century Bosnia and Herzegovina had centres and circles of balanced intellectual activity (Sarajevo, Mostar, Tuzla and elsewhere) bringing together secular Muslim intellectuals and the ulema, who founded publications together and to a greater or lesser extent addressed Islam as moral inspiration, Islam as the matrix for the cultural renaissance of the Bosniacs, and so on. Among these periodicals were Behar, Biser, and Novi Behar. 



With the appearance of the Young Muslims on the scene, however, there was now an organization that was not part of the Islamic Community of the first Yugoslavia nor did it fit within the context of the centuries long traditional ways in which the Islamic Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina operated. The Young Muslims consisted of Bosniac high school pupils, students and intellectuals, along with a number of teachers from Bosnia's medresas and students of the Islamic Shari’ah Theological College in Sarajevo. The organization took Islam as the platform for its ideological operations, but not Islam merely as the ulema’s understanding of the traditional faith, tried and tested morality and more than a thousand years of living culture – they also took Islam as a political and ideological platform. 


Of course, the terms political Islam or ideological Islam are not to be found in the early writings of the Young Muslims. These syntagmata have precise definitions in present-day social sciences and western Islamological writings, which can be reduced to the assertion that Islam is expressed historically both as faith and as state, both as a moral code and as a legal system. In formulating the concept of their Islamic thought, the Young Muslims took the Egyptian reformers and revivalists of Islamic thought and Islamic institutions as their starting point, and were particularly fascinated by the poet Muhammad Iqbal from the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. 



From sources available to date, it is clear that the Young Muslims movement had neither a military nor a strictly party wing. It was simply a fresh and dynamic moral movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which spread among the youth and sought to articulate Islam as a faith that was still living and that could serve to turn the social ideals of equality and justice into reality. The Young Muslims movement is thus seen as distancing itself equally from fascism and communism, while it did not share with the traditional ulema their view of Islam as reduced to mere ritual, to religion as worship. 


After taking power in Yugoslavia in 1945, the communists dealt harshly with their ideological opponents. The Young Muslims were among the first to bear the brunt, although they were organized neither militarily nor as a party. 


Alija Izetbegović was arrested in the first wave in 1946 for belonging to the Young Muslims, and was sentenced by the communist regime to three years in prison – all of which he served, without a single day's remission. 


After leaving prison in 1949, Izetbegović enrolled in Agronomy, studying for almost three years and passing 13 examinations. He was an excellent agronomy student but, as the years went by, Izetbegović increasingly lost interest, and finally transferred to the Law Faculty in 1954, where he graduated and completed his studies in November 1956. After graduating, Alija Izetbegović worked for almost ten years for a construction firm. He was again arrested by the communists and tried in the famous Sarajevo trial of 1983, when he was sentenced to fourteen years in prison. This time he spent five years and eight months behind bars. 



The 1983 trial, like every other ideological trial under communism, was a travesty of justice. Izetbegović was accused and condemned for his writings, and in particular for the Islamic Declaration, in which he wrote that there was a renaissance among the Muslims of the world, who were waking from their lethargy. Although this work was of a theoretical nature and based on being “for” rather than “against”, the communists sentenced Izetbegović’s thinking to fourteen years in prison. 


After the fall of socialism and communism in Yugoslavia, and with it in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Izetbegović was released from prison and lost no time, in the spring of 1990, in founding, with another fourteen prominent Bosniacs, the Party of Democratic Action, which was victorious at the first free elections, and in every election from 1990 to 2002 gained the largest number of Bosniac votes in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Alija Izetbegović was president of the SDA from 1990 to 2001 and honorary president from 2001 to 2003. 


He was elected as a member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the first democratic elections in November 1990, and was president or a member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1990 to 2000. He quit the position of President of the Presidency of BiH in October 2000 for health reasons. 



During his lifetime, Alija Izetbegović published the following works: 



1) The Islamic Declaration (translated into seven languages), 

2) Problems of the Islamic Renaissance, 

3) Islam Between East and West (translated into nine languages), 

4) My Flight to Freedom – notes from prison (translated into English and Arabic), 

5) The Miracle of Bosnian Resistance 

6) Izetbegović 96 – the years of war and peace 

7) Izetbegović 97-2001 – speeches, interviews, letters 

8) Memoirs (translated into English, Arabic and Turkish). 



Alija Izetbegović received many awards, decorations and acclamations for his theoretical, political, democratic and statesmanlike contributions. These are just some of them: 



1995 – Decorated by the Republic of Croatia Grand Order of Queen Jelena, 

1997 – Order of State of the Republic of Turkey, 

1998 – Decorated by the state of Qatar Order of Independence, 

1993 – King Feisal Award for services to Islam, 

1995 – Personality of the year in a survey by the Spanish daily El Mundo, 

1996 – Medallion of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and the Arts, 

1996 – Honorary doctorate of science from the University of Tuzla, 

1996 – Thinker of the Year award from the Ali Osman Hafiz Foundation of Medina 

1997 – International award for democracy from the Centre for Democracy, USA, 

1997 – Honorary doctorate of laws from Marmara University in Istanbul, 

1997 – Sixth of April Award from the City of Sarajevo, 

1997 – Honorary doctorate from the University of Riyadh, 

1998 – Award from the Crans Montana Forum for the advancement of democracy, 

2000 – Voted personality of the century in BiH by the daily Dnevni Avaz, 

2001 – Award of Islamic personality of the year by the United Arab Emirates. 


Alija Izetbegović’s political philosophy can best be read from his memoirs, which have recently been published in English. 

There are many reasons for Alija Izetbegović’s memoirs to be regarded as out of the ordinary. Among them is the fact that they are far more than the political recollections of a man writing at leisure. The book was written by the most significant political leader of Bosnia since 1990, at times that were anything but leisurely. 

These memoirs acquire a special stamp from the fact that Alija Izetbegović was for several years President of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina and a political leader in Bosnia and of the Bosniacs at a painful time for Bosnia, a time that contemporary German philosophy would be described as “condensed time.” 

It was a time when in five years the people of Bosnia lived through the equivalent of one hundred years. During that “condensed time,” the Bosnians met as many people and more as they would have met in a hundred normal years; they faced more death than they would have seen in a hundred years of normal, or what the Chinese Daoists call uninteresting times. Alija Izetbegović’s memoirs are thus a first rate document of the “terror of historic time,” as Mircea Eliade would call it – the terror of history that swamped Bosnia. 

Every page of Izetbegović’s book of memoirs records the encounters of one man at just such a time, and everything attendant on it: war and aggression, brutal opponents, wily politicians, harsh negotiators, indifferent cartographers, astute mediators, courteous envoys, powerful world statesmen, provincial parastatesmen, humanitarians, humanists, world religious leaders, evil-doers, traitors, military leaders, the puppets and dogs of war, international peace-makers, common soldiers, refugees… 

There are also many pages of his memoirs that could be called the quest for justice. They reveal Alija Izetbegović carrying the burden of Bosnia, knocking on the gates of the world’s capitals in an effort to arouse their conscience: Washington and Teheran, London and Paris, New York and Riyadh, Ankara and Vienna, Bonn and Brussels. As he did so, back home, summits and conferences notwithstanding, the brutal war, the bitter winters, the snow, fog and lowering clouds of hopelessness continued over his much-besieged country. 

What is it in these memoirs that brings together in a meaningful way all the ravages of war, all those people, events, ceasefires, negotations, summits, conferences, appeals and statements? I would say that it is Bosnia. I have the impression that on the pages of these memoirs, Bosnia is a precious but complicated destiny, Izetbegović’s destiny. 

Izetbegović’s memoirs have no hero, but they do have a heroine – Bosnia. Indeed, were it not that the very first chapter makes it clear that Bosnia is a country, a country that exists and has existed since way back, one might think from later chapters that Bosnia is a beautiful but battered lady, driven out barefoot, whom Izetbegović is defending with some kind of army of hers, giving interviews and demanding that the lady Bosnia be rescued by the world. The pages on Bosnia are the finest in these memoirs of Izetbegović’s, and indeed among the finest ever written on Bosnia. 

Izetbegović’s discourse in Bosnia as an idea, a noble idea of governing different religions and peoples in an open society, belongs among those works of political philosophy that are now advocated in the American west by Jewish and Christian philosophers of moderate politics and common living.Out of his attitude to Bosnia in this work arises the complex question of the relationship between morality and politics in the politics of Alija Izetbegović. 

Izetbegović was well aware of, indeed had personally experience, politics without morality, but it is clear from his memoirs that he was an advocate of moral politics. 

Politics without morality demands everything all at once, requires ruthlessness, and tolerates brutality. The moral politics, though, which are tacitly expouded in the pages of his memoirs, asserts that it is better not to do everything you can, but that if you must, do not do it all at once. 

These memoirs give the impression that Izetbegović imbued his political philosophy with patience, endurance, and “active indifference,” which angered, and still angers, many. Indeed, by Balkan political standards, which are galvanized by war, Izetbegović was in many ways an ineffective politician, for he did not do what others do and what he could have done. 

However, the political philosophy of Alija Izetbegović, as tacitly expounded in his memoirs, asserts that one’s regrets are prompted more by what one does than by what one leaves undone. And this is particularly true at a time when few people are thinking about having regrets. 

Izetbegović was a Muslim who, because of his understanding of the philosophy of freedom in Islam, would be in prison in at least ten Muslim states today. The converse of that is that he was a Muslim who received a number of prestige awards in the Christian west for his contribution to human rights and for upholding the Ten Commandments. This, as I see it, is the paradox of Izetbegović’s destiny, including his political destiny; in defending democratic Bosnia, he was defending the European political practice which Europe has been experiencing in peace for the past fifty years. 

Finally, I would say that Izetbegović’s life was an extraordinarily hard one. He often used to say that if he was offered another life, he would refuse; but that if he was compelled to be born again, he would choose to live his own life. 

If it is God’s will that the Bosnian Muslims survive, I am certain that the name of Alija Izetbegović will continue to be spoken in Bosnia for centuries to come.