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Philosopher, Warrior and Saint

Few Contemporary Leaders will leave this World with as much dignity, affection and honour as Alija Izetbegovic, the former President of Bosnia, who passed away aged 78 on 19 October

Q-News No. 351, November 2003 / Ramadan 1424, p.24-26

The tens of thousands of mourners who attended his funeral in Sarajevo were joined in prayers by millions throughout the Muslim world who loved and admired this exemplary European Muslim leader.

The letters of condolences that flooded Bosnia from the leaders of over 80 countries delivered a similar message of veneration and admiration. Sunni and Shi'a, 'moderate' and 'conservative', all strands of thoughts agreed on the stature of a man whom history will primarily acknowledge as the father of the modern Bosnian state.

Alija Izetbegovic was born on 8 August 1925 into a devout Muslim family in the north Bosnian town of Bosanski Samak, in what was then the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes under the rule of the Serb royal house. In the mid-nineteenth century, his ancestors bad been banned from Serb-dominated Belgrade after a constitutional clause was introduced banning Muslims, Jews and gipsies from living in the City.

Izetbegovic moved to Sarajevo as a youth. During the Second World War, he witnessed Serb massacres of Muslims and in later years liked to contrast the behaviour of the Serbs with that of the invading Germans, who had seized the City and its important facilities, but left the Civilian population largely alone.

In 1940, at the age of 16, he co-founded the Young Muslims, a social, religious and political group modelled on Egypt's Ikhwan al Muslimeen. Initially, the teenaged Izetbegovic was involved mainly in humanitarian work helping settle refugees from eastern Bosnia before emerging as the group's main ideologue.

In 1946, when he was 21, Izetbegovic began writing a book called The Islamic Declaration. In it, he said, "There can be no peace or coexistence between the Islamic faith and non-Islamic Societies and political institutions."

Before he could get it published, however, the communist government of Josip Broz Tito cut his work short, and Izetbegovic (together with his dose friend and confidant, Nedzib Sacirbey) was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for his activities with the Young Muslims. The regime viewed the group's members as dissidents who were advocating pan-Islamism.

The Islamic Declaration was eventually published in 1974 in Belgrade, and again in Sarajevo in 1990. In it Izetbegovic argued that Islam is incompatible with non-Islamic Systems and called for political and religious revolution. The book was later cited by Izetbegovic's enemies as evidence of his 'fundamentalist leanings.' But sympathisers pointed out that it made no reference to Bosnia and was more concerned with the place of Islam in the modern world, reflecting the plight of a lay religious thinker living under a Communist regime.

After his release, Izetbegovic made up for lost time by finishing law school, getting married to Halida Repovac, and having three children - Sabina, Bakir and Lejla. He began his career working as a legal advisor in several Sarajevo companies.

But he never stopped writing about Islam and the position of Bosniaks in Yugoslavia. He wrote for several magazines in Yugoslavia and a handful of Arab countries always under the pen name S.B.L., the initials of bis children's names.

Among those who felt threatened and 'warned' of bis writings was the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. lt is reported that once Nasser, who was dose to Tito and with whom he founded the Non-Aligned Movement, warned the Yugoslav leader of Izetbegovic and the core members of the Young Muslims. "What can I do about it?" asked Tito. "Nothing," said Nasser. "Except to bring them all under one roof and bring it down on them." lt is to the credit of the Communist dictator that he did not take the advice of the Pan-Arabist despot.

Izetbegovic's 1980 book Islam Between East and West was an original work that attempted to define the curious status of Bosnia's Muslims and to seek reconciliation between Europe's democratic traditions and Sunni Islamic teachings. But the philosophical tract had enough material to earn him the ire of the communist authorities again. Tito felt that Izetbegovic was fomenting nationalism. And in 1983, Izetbegovic and 12 of his friends from the Young Muslims were sentenced to prison. Izetbegovic, as the movement's 'spiritual leader,' received the longest sentence of 14 years. After numerous appeals, they were released five years later in 1988.

When he came out of prisun in 1988, both Yugoslavia and communism were disintegrating. In May 1990, he founded the Muslim-based Party of Democratic Action, which won the most seats in the republic's first free parliamentary elections in November 1990. He became President a few months later.

Within weeks of his taking office, Yugoslavia was being dismantled and war was looming in Croatia. During the conflict, Izetbegovic was disinclined to take sides out of an anxiety to preserve Bosnia Herzegovina's traditions of co-existence. Ever a thinker and philosopher he compared Bosnia's mix to a painting by Jackson Pollock, and the choice between the aggressive politicians of Belgrade and Zagreb to that between leukaemia and a brain tumour.

But the break up of Yugoslavia convinced him of Bosnia's destiny as an independent democratic state: "Our home is in Europe and not in a fundamentalist stare," he said. "My aim is to have an independent, democratic republic which confirms to European standards."

But in early 1991, the Bosnian Serbs warned Izetbegovic that they would refuse to accept an independent Bosnia dominated by Muslims. The Serbs boycotted a referendum fur independence held in February 1992. In hindsight it seems like Izetbegovic misread the gathering war clouds and insisted peace would prevail. Civil war broke out in April 1992 with clashes between the three main ethnic groups. Izetbegovic appealed for UN help and ordered full mobilisation of territorial and police reservists.

In the first month of the war, hundreds of people were killed and nearly half a million lost their homes, as Serb forces, backed by Serbia and armed by the federal army, launched an offensive to carve out a Serb state in Bosnia. At the same time, Croat paramilitary groups responded by attempting to secure Croat-populated regions in the west.

During the autumn, relations with the Muslims' nominal allies in Zagreb became increasingly strained. Mate Boban, chosen by Tudjman to lead the Croats in their heartland in western Herzegovina, declared the region autonomous. In early 1993, during an attempt to take the Muslim enclave of Mostar, thousand of Bosnian Muslim civilians were killed.

Izetbegovic pleaded in vain for a relaxation of the arms embargo to allow the Bosnians to fight on an equal footing, with their foes. Instead, foreign ministers of the EU pressed him to accept a deal based on the de facto partition of the country into three areas.

In February 1993, Izetbegovic told an angry crowd people from the starving, besieged city of Zepa, eastern Bosnia, "1 cannot help you. 1 have no means to help you. We have found ourselves, we the Bosnian people, between a cruel enerny and a hypocritical friend."

Even Izetbegovic's allies advised hirn to make peace 'out of the pieces.' "Take that piece of land and get your people back into the country, dear Alija," advised Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, "or else your people will melt away as the snow in the springtime." In July 1993, under pressure from mutinous elements in the Bosnian collective presidency, Izetbegovic accepted for the first time that the country could becorne an ethnic federation if the Serbs and Croats insisted. But progress towards an agreement continued to be frustrated by disagreements over the map. Increasingly, Izetbegovic found himself under intense pressure - particularly from the EU negotiators, David Owen and Cyrus Vance, who blamed him for making "unreasonable demands."

Things began to look more hopeful in March 1994, when Tudjman, under pressure from the Americans, executed an abrupt volte face and committed himself to a Muslim-Croat federation. Peace with Croatia allowed more arms to flow through to Muslim forces, breaking the pattern of Serbian gains.

In 1995, Croat-Muslim forces continued to make gains at the expense of the Bosnian Serbs and, in May, Izetbegovic felt confident enough to predict that the blockade of Sarajevo would be broken by November. The growing seriousness of the fighting - and the increased possibility of a victory for the Bosnian Muslim forces - prompted a renewed American attempt to broker a cessation of hostilities, which culminated in the Dayton Peace Accords of November, bringing the four-year war to an end.

Historians will have no choice except to consider the Dayton Accords one of the most unjust "peace plans" in the history, Izetbegovic is reputed to have said. Drawn up and imposed by the United States and enforced by NATO military occupation it rewarded Serbs with their own state on half of Bosnia's territory, while Croats received another twenty-five percent. The US plan left Muslims, which make up approximately half of Bosnia's population, quarantined and landlocked on one quarter of their own country.

In essence, the Dayton Accord imposed a system of government on Bosnia that guarantees perpetual economic and political stagnation and weakens Muslim political power. With it died any dream of the emergence of a dynamic and viable Muslim state in the heart of Europe. So many of the problems of the Muslim world that we typically blame on others are fundamentally the fault of Muslims, hut not so in Bosnia Herzegovina. In the face of this internationally organised quagmire designed to paralyse and under-develop Muslim progress in the country, Alija Izetbegovic decided he didn't have the strength to continue. "Somebody must come who can deal with such problems," he said.

In June 2000, the man many Bosnians affectionately called "Dedo", or Grandpa, announced his decision to step down as president. He cited health problems - hut tellingly, he said, "The international community is pushing things forward in Bosnia ... but it is doing it at the expense of the Muslim people. I feel it as an injustice," he said. "These are the things that I cannot live with."

Izetbegovic's death is an event upon which Muslims around the world should reflect. He is one of the few Muslim political leaders of our time who demonstrated real love and understanding for Islam, and his career contains lessons on the way the West views Muslims in Europe and how it deals with authentic, powerful Muslim leadership.

"Do we want the Muslim people to leave their going around in circles, their dependence, backwardness, and poverty?" Izetbegovic once wrote. "Then we show clearly which path will take us to that goal: establishing Islam in every field - in the personal life of the individual, in family and society ... and the establishment of a unique Islamic community from Morocco to Indonesia."

For Izetbegovic, these were not just words: they were a plan of action that he acted upon his entire life.

It is ironic, hut perhaps the most anti-war leader in Europe was forced to lead an army that managed to beat back vastly superior forces. But Izetbegovic, the devout Muslim, leaves another crucial and lasting legacy: for Bosnians, he took the shame out of being Muslim. In Yugoslavia, regular visits to the mosque meant being snubbed for jobs in the Communist Party-controlled economy. Islam was demonised in history books, and practising Muslim students could expect vastly lower grades regardless of how much they studied. Even the Arabic and Turkish words and expressions that enrich the Bosnian language were systematically removed and derided as "uncultured."

Today, thanks to this warrior saint, the cultural revolution in Bosnia Herzegovina continues unabated. Children study their religion in public schools. Government employees, businessmen, soldiers, and university students can openly practice Islam with a sense of pride and dignity. A worshipper in one of Sarajevo's packed mosque today might find a street sweeper praying on his left side and the city's mayor on his right.

The tragedy of Bosnia is not only that 350,000 men, women and children died because their neighbours hated them for their religion, or that thousands of women were raped, or that hundreds of mosques were razed hut what it says about our modern "civilisation." Was Izetbegovic's belief that the world would not allow what took place in Bosnia Herzegovina a flaw in his character or a betrayal of his trust in our shared humanity? This, surely, was something that he as a philosopher attempted to answer many times.

Whatever the conclusion Izetbegovic ended life a winner. He led his beloved people to freedom from an imperial Yugoslavia. He raised an army to defend his people. He led the renaissance of Islam in Bosnia Herzegovina, while protecting the rights of Christians in the areas under his control.

A lawyer by profession, Izetbegovic served two prison terms totalling nine years in communist Yugoslavia because of his beliefs. He was never, alhamdulillah, a member of the communist Party which he fought intellectually all his life.

In 1997, he told an Islamic conference in Tehran that "the West is not rotten. Islam is the best, that is true, but we are not the best. Instead of hating the West, let us compete with it. Let's have a dialogue with it."

Alija Izetbegovic spoke like a warrior, fought like a saint and lived life a true philosopher.

May God rest his soul in peace.

Deutsche Muslim-Liga Bonn e.V. - 1425 / 2004