Alija Izetbegovic, 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.
He was born in Bosanski Samac on August 8, 1926, in 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 his education. In 1943 he graduated from Sarajevo’s First Real Gymnasium for Boys. For the next three years Izetbegovic attended the agriculture 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.
Izetbegovic went to jail for the first time in Marshall 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 joepardizing 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 Quran. 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 blame the modernist reformers in several Islamic countries, he virtually declare war on everything non-Islamic rules when he considered the distortion of Islam rules with non-Islamic rules in the civil life. “There can be neither peace nor beneficial for civil life to constitute other than Islamic rules,” said Izetbegovic. Serbs and Croats resisted living in an unitary state dominated by Izetbegovic and his party. Izetbegovic continued to advocate what he called ‘a citizens state’ of ethnic and religious equals.
Communist Yugoslavia also did not take lightly as 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 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 freedom living for ethnical and cultural diverse environment in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
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 made Yugoslavia virtually ungovernable. On December 20, 1990, the presidency appointed him its president.
In 1991 the loosely organized nation of Yugoslavia fell a 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 Bosnian-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 politicio-religious writings that suggested strong fundamentalist leanings aand the $ 93,000 King Faisal Fund Prize (1993) he received for “services rendered to Islam”, Izetbegovic was able to convince the West, especially the US 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, and 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.
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 Daayton, Ohio –the fourth Bosnian peace initiative since 1992. After three weeks of on-again-off-again talks, they grudgingly agreed to end the war. A NATO-led peace keeping force, Implementation Force (IFOR) was changed with maintaining the cease fire.
The cornerstone ofthe 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 (SDP). 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 evacuated. Future generations must decide whether he was a hero and the father of Bosnian Muslim nation or an ambitious potician who rejected peace through compromise and helped destroy his own dream of a united multinational and multi cultural Bosnia-Herzegovina.