Alija Izetbegovic (born 1926), a lawyer, businessman, and writer, founded the Muslim-based Party for Democratic Action in 1989. He became head of the eight-member presidency of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1990.
Alija Izetbegovic was born in Bosanski Samac on August 8, 1926, into a well-to-do and devout Muslim family. Little is known about his early years. The Izetbegovic family moved to Sarajevo in 1928, where young Alija received all of his education. In 1943 he graduated from Sarajevo's First Real Gymnasium for Boys. For the next three years Izetbegovic attended the agricultural school but left it to study law. He received his law degree from the University of Sarajevo in 1956. Izetbegovic spent most of his career as a lawyer as legal adviser to two large public corporations in Sarajevo.
Izetbegovic was married, but virtually nothing is known about his wife and her background. They have two daughters and one son. The older daughter, Lejla, was a mathematician. The younger, Sabina, taught French and English and worked as her father's translator. The son, Bakir, was a trained architect, but headed Izetbegovic's security force. In the 1993-1994 civil war Bakir commanded a brigade of special forces, code named "Delta," that included some mujaheddins.
Young Activist Designated Radical
Izetbegovic went to jail for the first time in Marshal Tito's Yugoslavia in 1946, when he and a group of Bosnian Muslim intellectuals organized a Muslim antithesis to Tito's secular Marxist program and named it "Young Muslims." The end result was that he and 12 other radical Muslims were arrested and charged with "associating for the purpose of hostile activity and jeopardizing the constitutional order" and for "acting from the standpoint of Islamic fundamentalism and Muslim nationalism." Although tried and sentenced to three years of imprisonment, he was soon released as a first offender.
The second brush with the law was more serious and came as a result of his authorship of The Islamic Declaration: A Programme for the Islamization of Muslims and the Muslim Peoples (1970, reprinted 1990). The work recalls nostalgically the greatness of the Ottoman Empire and urges Muslims to return to life as prescribed by the Koran. Izetbegovic also wrote Islam Between East and West (1976) and Problems of Islamic Revival (1981).
It was The Islamic Declaration, however, that caused the greatest splash. Not only did Izetbegovic condemn the modernist reformers in several Islamic countries, he virtually declared war on everything non-Islamic when he asserted the incompatibility of Islam with non-Islamic religions. "There can be neither peace nor coexistence between the Islamic religion and non-Islamic political and social institutions," said Izetbegovic. Serbs and Croats pointed to such statements when explaining why they resisted living in an unitary state dominated by Izetbegovic and his party. Izetbegovic, however, continued to advocate what he called "a citizens' state" of ethnic and religious equals. Bosnian Serbs and Croats asserted that he never renounced a single word in his "Declaration" and declined as consistently to comment on it when asked. Izetbegovic's supporters noted that the work never directly refers to Bosnia, and characterized it as a consideration of the place of Islam in the modern world. Later he told a news correspondent, "Our home is in Europe and not in any fundamentalist state. My aim is to have an independent, democratic republic which conforms to European standards."
Communist Yugoslavia also did not take lightly a second publication, Islam Between East and West, but addressed it only after Tito's death in 1980. In 1983 Izetbegovic was tried for Muslim nationalism and sedition and sentenced to 14 years of imprisonment. He was released from Foca prison, however, in November 1988 after five years and eight months of imprisonment. Undaunted, only a year later Izetbegovic gave impetus to the creation of a Muslim political party, which soon became the Party for Democratic Action. He spoke of creating an ethnically and culturally diverse environment in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He was its first and only president.
At the first democratic multi-party elections in the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in November 1990, Izetbegovic (at age 65) was elected to the republic's eight-member presidency, a remnant of Tito's concept of collective leadership that, some argue, made Yugoslavia virtually ungovernable. On December 20, 1990, the presidency appointed him its president.
In 1991 the loosely organized nation of Yugoslavia fell apart. Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia declared independence, followed by Bosnia-Herzegovina the following year. But fierce fighting erupted almost immediately—Serbs against Croats, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats against Muslim Bosnians. Despite repeated peace efforts, the bloody civil war—fought almost exclusively within the 1991 boundaries of Bosnia-Herzegovina—dragged on well into 1994. Of the conflict's main leaders, Izetbegovic was blamed least for the war's ethnically motivated atrocities against the civilian population.
A small, soft-spoken man of pleasant demeanor, Izetbegovic did not betray the shrewd politician he was. In spite of his radical politico-religious writings that suggested strong fundamentalist leanings and the $93,000 King Faisal Fund Prize (1993) he received for "services rendered to Islam," Izetbegovic was able to convince the West, especially the U.S. leadership, that he was indeed a moderate. This in spite of a close relationship he developed with Iran's leaders. From 1991 to 1994 one of the Bosnian Muslims' big-three—President Izetbegovic, Vice President Ganic, or Prime Minister Silajdzic—visited Iran at least once every month. A result of this relationship was that Iran provided arms to the Bosnian Muslims in spite of the United Nations' embargo. In addition, mujaheddins Iran recruited entered Bosnia-Herzegovina to fight against Croats and Serbs.
Reluctant Participant in Just Accord
Critics believe that Izetbegovic was allowed to renege on several agreements he signed with Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs, designed to end the civil war. He rejected the concept of three ethnic states tied together in a loose confederation, favoring instead a unitary Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the fall of 1995 Izetbegovic and his military/political enemies, Milosevic of Serbia and Tudjman of Croatia, were persuaded by an exasperated international community to participate in peace talks at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio—the fourth Bosnian peace initiative since 1992. After three weeks of on-againoff-again talks, they grudgingly agreed to end the war. A NATO-led peace keeping force, Implementation Force (IFOR) was charged with maintaining the cease fire.
The cornerstone of the agreement was to be free elections held the following year with the objective of reunifying Bosnia. Yet as the date neared, opposition candidates had been able to make little progress. Karadzic, military leader of Bosnian Serbs and one of the most-wanted criminals on The Hague's list, could not participate in elections, but was clearly in charge of candidates from the Serb Democratic Party (SDS). The parties of the other two factions, Izetbegovic's Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and Zubak's Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) demonstrated similar holds on their electorates. As many predicted, the September 14, 1996 election returned to power the very people who had taken Bosnia-Herzegovina to war. The vote split along ethnic lines; each candidate won a majority of votes in areas they controlled. The three separatists were to share a tripartite presidency, as ratified by the Dayton accord. Having the greatest number of votes, Izetbegovic became the first to head the tripartite. Leadership would rotate thereafter to govern the uneasy peace.
Izetbegovic's role in history and Bosnia-Herzegovina's fratricidal civil war has yet to be evaluated. Future generations must decide whether he was a hero and the father of the Bosnian Muslim nation or an ambitious politician who rejected peace through compromise and helped destroy his own dream of a united multinational and multicultural Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Further Reading on Alija Izetbegovic
Numerous books have been written about the Balkan war, including: Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution After the Cold War by Susan L. Woodward; Balkan Odyssey by David Owen; Yugosalvia: Death Of A Nation by Laura Silber and Allan Little; and The Last Days of Yugoslavia by Borisav Jovic.
There was virtually no information available in English about Alija Izetbegovic as an official or private person. The two books he wrote, The Islamic Declaration (Sarajevo, 1970; reprinted 1990) and Islam Between East and West (1976) were informative with respect to Izetbegovic's religious and political thinking. Both have been translated into English but are not widely available. Most helpful on the political situation was a paper dated September 1, 1992, by the House Republican Research Committee on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare titled "Iran's European Springboard?" The authors are Yossef Bodansky and Vaugn S. Forrest. Two books on the area provided good background to the 1990s warfare: Noel Malcolm, Bosnia: A Short History (1993) and Robert Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History (1993).
Among the magazine, newspaper articles and reports, the following are useful and informative: Judy Dempsey, "Man in the News: Former Rebel with a Pacifist Cause," Financial Times (March 7, 1992); Mervyn Hiskett, "Islam and Bosnia," Salisbury Review (June 1993); and Julia Preston, "Bosnia's Muslims Say the U.S. Let Them Down on Peace Plan," The Washington Post (March 11, 1993).