Alija Izetbegović

name=Alija Izetbegović

order=1st President of Bosnia and Herzegovina
term_start=3 March 1992
term_end=14 March 1996
predecessor=Position established
successor=Tripartite presidency
order2=1st Bosniak member of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Presidency
term_start2=14 March 1996
term_end2=October, 2000
successor2=Halid Genjac
birth_date=birth date|1925|8|8|mf=y
birth_place=Bosanski Šamac, Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes Flagicon|Kingdom of Yugoslavia
death_date= death date and age|2003|10|19|1925|8|8|mf=y
death_place=Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina Flagicon|Bosnia and Herzegovina
party=Party of Democratic Action

Alija Izetbegović (8 August 1925 – 19 October 2003) was a Bosniak activist, lawyer, author, philosopher and politician, who, in 1990, became the first president of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He served in this role until 1996, when he became a member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, serving until 2000. He was also the author of several books, most notably "Islam Between East and West" and "The Islamic Declaration".

Early life

Izetbegović was born in the town of Bosanski Šamac, situated in the north of Bosnia; he was one of five children born to a distinguished but impoverished family descended from former Ottoman aristocrats from Belgrade who fled to Bosnia after Serbia gained independence from the Ottoman Empire. His grandfather, Alija, was the mayor of Bosanski Šamac. His father, an accountant, declared bankruptcy in 1927 and the family moved to Sarajevo. Izetbegović became closely involved in Bosniak society as he grew up during the 1930s and 1940s. With a devoted family and Muslim upbringing, he received a secular education, eventually graduating from law school in Sarajevo. At this time he also joined the Young Muslims group. During World War II he did not participate in any armed forces. After the war Izetbegović was arrested in 1946 and sentenced to 3 years in prison on charges of anti-communist activities. Once free, he earned a law degree at Sarajevo University and remained engaged in politics.

Dissident and activist

In 1970, Izetbegović published a manifesto entitled "The Islamic Declaration", expressing his views on relationships between Islam, state and society. The authorities interpreted the declaration as a call for introduction of Sharia law in Bosnia, and banned the publication.cite web |url= |title=Obituary: Alija Izetbegovic |publisher=BBC |date=2003-10-19] The declaration remains a source of controversy. It was used by Serb nationalists as one of excuses for the war, often quoting the declaration as an intent to create an Iranian style Muslim republic in Bosnia. Passages from the declaration were frequently quoted by Izetbegović's opponents during the 1990s, portraying it as an open statement of Islamic fundamentalism. [cite web |url= |title=The Real Izetbegović:Laying to Rest a Mythical Autocrat] The opinion is shared by some Western authors such as John Schindler. [John R. Schindler, Zenith Press 2007] Izetbegović vigorously denied such accusations. British author Noel Malcolm asserted that the Serb nationalist interpretation of the Declaration was 'false propaganda' and offered a more benevolent reading of the declaration.cite web |url= |title=Bosnia and Death of Yugoslavia: 1989-1992 (translated) |author=Noel Malcolm |language=Bosnian] arguing that it was "a general policy on politics and Islam, directed towards entire Islamic world; it's not about Bosnia, and Bosnia is not even mentioned there"... and "none of the cited points could be rightfully called fundamentalistic". Malcolm argues that Izetbegović's views were much more thoroughly expressed in his later book, "Islam between East and West", where he "tried to portray Islam as a spiritual and intellectual synthesis including West European values".

Izetbegović wrote what is however regarded as his central workFact|date=March 2007, the book "Islam between East and West", in 1980. It explores the notion that "Islam is the only synthesis capable of unifying mankind's essentially dualistic existence". [cite web |url= |title=Alija Izetbegovic: Islamic Hero of the Western World |author=Diana Johnstone |publisher=Institute for Media Analysis]


In April 1983, Izetbegović and twelve other Bosniak activists (including Melika Salihbegović, Edhem Bičakčić, Omer Behmen, Mustafa Spahić and Hasan Čengić) were tried before a Sarajevo 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". 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 fourteen years in prison. The verdict was strongly criticised by Western human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Helsinki Watch, which pointed out that the case was based on communist propaganda, and the accused were not charged with either using or advocating violence. [Nedžad Latić, Boja povijesti, ISBN: COBISS.BH-ID] 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 twelve years. In 1988, as communist rule faltered, he was pardoned and released after almost five years in prison. His health had suffered serious and lasting damage. [Nedžad Latić, Boja povijesti, ISBN: COBISS.BH-ID]


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", 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 Bosniak 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 Bosniaks 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 Bosniak candidate for the Presidency and Izetbegović became President.

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 nationalistic parties SDS and HDZ 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 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 1992, Portuguese diplomat José Cutileiro drafted a plan, later known as the Lisbon Agreement, that would turn Bosnia into a triethnic cantonal state. Initially, all three sides signed up to the agreement; Izetbegović for the Bosniaks, Radovan Karadžić for the Serbs and Mate Boban for the Croats. Some two weeks later, however, 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 Zimmermann.

War in Bosnia and Herzegovina

In February 1992, Izetbegović called a national referendum on independence for Bosnia as a European condition for recognition of Bosnia as an independent state, 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 7 April 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 war, but this did not happen. Instead, war immediately broke out across the country as Serb and Yugoslav Army forces took control of large areas of Bosnia against the opposition of poorly-equipped government security forces.

Initially the Serb forces attacked non-Serb civilian population in Eastern Bosnia. Once towns and villages were securely in their hands, the Serb forces - the military, the police, the paramilitaries and, sometimes, even Serb villagers – applied the same pattern: Bosniak houses and apartments were systematically ransacked or burnt down, Bosniak civilians were rounded up or captured, and sometimes beaten or killed in the process. Men and women were separated, with many of the men detained in the camps. The women were kept in various detention centres where they had to live in intolerably unhygienic conditions, where they were mistreated in many ways including being raped repeatedly. Serb soldiers or policemen would come to these detention centres, select one or more women, take them out and rape them.cite web |url= |title=ICTY: The attack against the civilian population and related requirements]

For the next three years, Izetbegović lived precariously in a besieged Sarajevo surrounded by Serb forces. He denounced the failure of Western countries to reverse Serbian "aggression" and turned instead to the Muslim world, with which he had already established relations during his days as a dissident. The Bosnian government received money and arms. Following on Bosnian Muslims by Serb and, to a lesser extent, Croat forces, Arab volunteers came across Croatia into Bosnia to join the Bosnian Army. They were organized into detachment called "El-Mudžahid". The number of the "El-Mudžahid" volunteers is still disputed, from around 300 [SENSE Tribunal:ICTY - WE FOUGHT WITH THE BH ARMY, BUT NOT UNDER ITS COMMAND [] ] cite web |url=|title=Predrag Matvejević analysis] to 1,500. [SENSE Tribunal:ICTY - WE FOUGHT WITH THE BH ARMY, BUT NOT UNDER ITS COMMAND [] ] These caused particular controversy: foreign fighters, styling themselves "mujahiddin", turned up in Bosnia around 1993 with Croatian identity documents, passports and IDs. They quickly attracted heavy criticism, who considered their presence to be evidence of violent Islamic fundamentalism at the heart of Europe. However, the foreign volunteers became unpopular even with many of the Bosniak population, because the Bosnian army had thousands of troops and had no need for more soldiers, but for arms. Many Bosnian Army officers and intellectuals were suspicious regarding foreign volunteers arrival in central part of the country, because they came from Split and Zagreb in Croatia, and were passed through the self-proclaimed Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia without problems unlike Bosnian Army soldiers who were regularly arrested by Croat forces. According to general Stjepan Šiber, the highest ranking ethnic Croat in Bosnian Army, the key role in foreign volunteers arrival was played by Franjo Tuđman and Croatian counter-intelligence underground with the aim to justify involvement of Croatia in Bosnian War and mass crimes committed by Croat forces. Although Izetbegović regarded them as symbolically valuable as a sign of the Muslim world's support for Bosnia, they appear to have made little military difference and became a major political liability.cite web |url=|title=Predrag Matvejević analysis] The entity defence minister of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hasan Čengić, was closely associated with Iran 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 under central control, 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 "Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia" in Herzegovina and Central Bosnia. The 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 (Kreševo, Vareš, Jajce). Croat forces started their first attacks on Bosniaks in Gornji Vakuf and Novi Travnik, towns in Central Bosnia on June, 1992, but the attacks failed. The Graz agreement caused deep division inside the Croat community and strengthened the separation group, which led to the Lašva Valley ethnic cleansing campaign against Bosniak civilians. The campaign planned by the self-proclaimed Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia's political and military leadership from May 1992 to March 1993 and erupting the following April, was meant to implement objectives set forth by Croat nationalists in November of 1991.cite web|url=|title=ICTY: Blaškić verdict - A. The Lasva Valley: May 1992 – January 1993|] cite web|url=|title=ICTY (1995): Initial indictment for the ethnic cleansing of the Lasva Valley area - Part II|] cite web|url=|title=ICTY: Summary of sentencing judgement for Miroslav Bralo|] Adding to the general confusion, Izetbegović's former colleague Fikret Abdić established an "Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia" in parts of Cazin and Velika Kladuša municipalities in opposition to the Sarajevo government and in cooperation with Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tuđman. 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 benefited 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 Muslim 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 Bosniak Intellectuals (Drugi bošnjački sabor) officially re-introduced the historical ethnic name Bosniaks instead of the previously used Muslim in former Yugoslavia which was imposed by Serb communists who were afraid of losing Serb policy domination in Bosnia allowing Muslims to consume rights of an ethnic group. The Yugoslav Muslim by nationality policy was considered by Bosniaks to be neglecting and opposing their Bosnian identity because the term tried to describe Bosniaks as a religious group not an ethnic one.Imamović, Mustafa (1996). Historija Bošnjaka. Sarajevo: BZK Preporod. ISBN 9958-815-00-1] To quote Bosnian politician and president Hamdija Pozderac: "They don't allow Bosnianhood but they offered Muslimhood. We shall accept their offer, although the name is wrong, but with it we'll start the process." In discussion with Josip Broz Tito (1971).

Ending the war

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 and Bosniak forces to overrun many 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 "de facto" Serb capital of Banja Luka. When the Bosniaks stopped their advance they had captured the power plants supplying Banja Luka's electricity and used that control to pressure the Serb leadership into accepting a cease fire.

The parties agreed to meet at Dayton, Ohio to negotiate a peace treaty under the supervision of the United States. Croatian and Serbian interests were represented by President Tuđman and President Milošević respectively. Izetbegović represented the internationally recognised Bosnian Government.

After the war

After the Bosnian War was formally ended by the Dayton peace accord in November 1995, Izetbegović became a Member President of Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. 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" (derives from the word "dede" of Turkish which means "grandfather") or Grandpa. His endorsement helped his party to bounce back in the elections of 2002.

Serb nationalists and institutions twice petitioned the ICTY to indict him on war crimes and other charges.cite web |url=|title=Banjalučki sud sastavio listu osumnjičenih za ratne zločine:Tuđman među osumnjičenim] An ICTY investigation of Izetbegović was started, but terminated when he died.cite web |url=|title=Florence Hartmann statement] In his autobiography "Inescapable Questions", Izetbegović admits one occasion in which a small number of soldiers of the Bosnian army deliberately killed civilians, and details his government's struggles to maintain discipline over the hastily assembled army. [Inescapable Questions, Autobiographical Notes, ISBN-10:0860373673 [ Book Rewiew] ]

He died in October 2003 of heart disease complicated by injuries suffered in a fall at home.

Personal life and other information

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".

Alija Izetbegović died in October 2003 in Sarajevo. Following his death there was a drive to rename the main street of Sarajevo from Ulica Maršala Tita (Marshall Tito Street) and the Sarajevo International Airport in his honour. Following objections from politicians from Republika Srpska, the international community, and UN envoy Paddy Ashdown, both initiatives failed.

His grave at the Kovači cemetery in Sarajevo was badly damaged by a bomb on the morning of 11 August 2006. The identity of the bomber or bombers has not been determined.cite web |url= |title=Izetbegović grave damaged]

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy described Izetbegović's wartime career in a favorable documentary called "Bosna!"

In October 2006, his son Bakir (born 1956) was elected to a four-year term in the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a representaive of the SDA.


Available in English
* "Islam Between East and West", Alija Ali Izetbegović, American Trust Publications, 1985 (also ABC Publications, 1993)
* "Inescapable Questions: Autobiographical Notes", Alija Izetbegović, The Islamic Foundation, 2003
* "Izetbegović of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Notes from Prison, 1983-1988", Alija Izetbegović, Greenwood Press, 2001
* "Notes From Prison - 1983-1988", Alija Ali Izetbegović, published in PDF-format courtesy Bakir Izetbegović, 2006 [ "Notes From Prison - 1983-1988"]
* "The Islamic Declaration", Alija Izetbegović, s.n., 1991

Available in Bosnian
* "Govori i pisma", Alija Izetbegović, SDA, 1994
* "Rat i mir u Bosni i Hercegovini" (Biblioteka Posebna izdanja), Alija Izetbegović, Vijece Kongresa bosnjackih intelektualaca, 1998
* "Moj bijeg u slobodu: Biljeske iz zatvora 1983-1988" (Biblioteka Refleksi), Alija Izetbegović, Svjetlost, 1999
* "Islamska deklaracija" (Mala muslimanska biblioteka), Alija Izetbegović, Bosna, 1990


Further reading

* [ Terror Attack: Alija Izetbegovic's Grave Damaged by Explosion] - Reuters, Aug 11, 2006
* [ Alija Izetbegovic: 1925-2003: Biographical information, book reviews and excerpts from, Inc.]
* "The leader caught without a land", The Times (UK), 4 February 1993
* "Alija Izetbegović, Muslim Who Led Bosnia, Dies at 78", New York Times, 20 October 2003
* "Obituaries; Alija Izetbegović, 78; Led Bosnia Through War", Los Angeles Times, 20 October 2003
* "Obituary: Alija Izetbegović: Bosnia's first president, a devout Muslim who fought for his country's survival in war and peace during the 1990s", The Guardian (UK), 20 October 2003
* "Bosnia: A Short History", Noel Malcolm, 1996
* "Galvanizing Fear of Islam: The 1983 Trial of Alija Izetbegović in Context", Aimee Wielechowski, 1996
* "The Two Faces of Islam", Stephen Schwartz, 2002
* [ Alija Izetbegovic, Ex-President of Bosnia, Dies at 78] New York Times, 19 October 2003
* "Inescapable Questions: Autobiographical Notes", Alija Izetbegović, The Islamic Foundation, 2003

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