Alija Izetbegović: Legacy of a Wise King

Alija Izetbegović: (8 August 1925 – 19 October 2003)

A devout Muslim, a brave commander, a wise President, a determined man of struggle, a selfless human and a rare breed intellectual and thinker, Izetbegovic also dubbed as the ‘Wise King”, survived multiple jail terms, assaults on his people Serbians and Croatians, Yugoslav army arrests, Serbian rocketing and sniper fire of his offices, the backstabbing of Muslim rival leaders, and the contempt of western mediators, managing to gain independence for his country on March 1, 1992 – months after Slovenia and Croatia broke away from the former Yugoslavia, long before dying of a heart attack in the city he had grown up seeing his peope struggle.

Born in 1925 to an impoverished family descending from the aristocratic roots of Izetbeg Jahić from Belgrade who moved to the Bosnia Vilayet in 1861, following the withdrawal of the last Ottoman troops from Serbia.

Alija received secular education after his father had declared bankruptcy, having been rendered handicapped as a soldier in World War 1, when the family had to move to Sarjaevo. He would later earn a law degree at the University of Sarajevo.

Alija joined an Islamic organisation called ‘Young Muslims’ during the second world war. This is when his unending journey as a prisoner of various regimes would start. He was detained by the Serb royalists Chetniks in 1944 but was released. Later in 1946, he was arrested by the Yugoslav communists and was sentenced to three years prison.

Alija’s first work was the Islamic Declaration which was banned by the government. He had tried, very ardently, to call for an Islamic renewal. In his work he tried to expound upon the relationships between the various hierarchies of human organisation and the intricate connection between Islam, state and society, just like Shah Waliullaah from Delhi had done a few centuries back, whose works he would mention repeatedly in his own. The declaration had designated Pakistan as a model country for Muslims all over the world. The book made no reference to Bosnia, but it remained the basis for the well-funded and well-organised Serb and Croat campaigns to label Izetbegovic a fundamentalist. In 1983 he was sentenced to 12 years prison the communist court of Sarjaevo on the charges of “principally hostile activity inspired by Bosnian nationalism, association for purposes of hostile activity and hostile propaganda”. The verdict was criticised by all the international human rights forums as being “communist motivated” and subsequently his jail tern was reduced to twelve years. But with the fanning of the communist rule, he was released after five years of incarceration in Foca, south-east of Sarajevo, where Serbs were massacred Muslims during the second world war and again in 1992. With the bigger and more powerful Serbian and Croatian nationalist rulers bent on helping themselves to Bosnia and confining the Muslims to the status of second-class citizens, the odds were stacked against Izetbegovic.

He emerged from jail in 1988 to a Yugoslavia in its death throes, a process seriously set in train the previous year by the arrival in power of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade.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. 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. In the first modern multi-party elections in November of that year, the Muslim party was strongest, by virtue of representing the biggest single national group, 44% of the pre-war population. As head of the strongest party, Izetbegovic became president, or rather first among equals in the collective presidency. Of all the heads of state in the six republics of former Yugoslavia, Izetbegovic uniquely had been a lifelong anti-communist. All the other leaders had been senior apparatchiks in the communist regime.

He was a devout Muslim, who once affirmed that he had “no national feelings at all”. The religious activism that earned him two jail terms under the communists was distorted by the Serb and Croat regimes to paint him as an Islamic supremacist.

By the summer of 1991, war was raging first in Slovenia, then much more seriously in Croatia. In a vain attempt to avert the looming bloodbath, Izetbegovic backed a new, looser structure for Yugoslavia. Following an independence plebiscite, European recognition of a state called Bosnia-Herzegovina came on April 5 1992, and the Serbs launched their partitionist war the next day. Throughout the terrible waves of ethnic cleansing in what was primarily a war against civilians, Izetbegovic alone among the rival leaders retained a moral stature. “Those who have bloodied their hands cannot be forgiven,” he said. “But the only ones who are to be forgiven regardless of everything are the women and children. Let us not be an army that does what they are doing to us. Let us never fight against women and children. We will never win if we do.”

He was embittered by the ferocity of the assault on Bosnia’s Muslims and what he perceived as their betrayal by the west, he eschewed all claim to multi-ethnic leadership. He did not share any of the cynicism or vanity that marked other war leaders of his time or later but the history remains a witness he was responsible for the fact that Bosnia- Herzegovina survived.

He served as the first president of Bosnia until 1996, when he became members of the Presidency and serving till 2000.

Alija stood between east and west and wanted to bring them together, he analysed both worlds’ spiritual and intellectual roots in detail. His book “Islam between East and West” is an example of his extensive grasp of philosophies and religions from far east to far west, from the orient to the occident, from ancient to present.

“The book deals with dogmas, institutions, and teachings of Islam with the aim of establishing the place of Islam in the general spectrum of ideas,” Izetbegovic wrote in his book.

The book takes us on a journey from the Helenic philosophers and metaphysicians to the sages and saints of India and China, from Aristotle to Heidegger, from Sophocles to Nietzsche, from western classics to Russian literature, from Iqbal to Shah Waliullah, Muhajir Makki. He is however not a philosopher, he just draws parallels for the reader to understand how these thoughts evolved and how ‘East is East and West is West’ and where does Islam fit in context of all these thoughts. To him Islam is, and should be, a “permanent searching through history” for a state of “inward and outward balance”.

The idea that he defended all his life was justice had to be established in personal as well political life, an order based on equality and freedom where diversities existed. He describes the basic philosophy of a fair social and political order as the principle of “being and staying human”, which refers in the political discourse to a just State governed by laws and ensuring rights to its people. In his opinion the most significant function of law is to restrict the government with a view to protect fundamental rights and freedoms, the strongest proof of justice and law, according to him are these protections of personal rights and freedoms.

He differed from other modern and post modern thinkers such as Kant, Rawls, Derrida and Foucault, who also believed in having an ontological relationship with the other in that he had strong understanding of Islam behind his personal, philosophical and political ideals, and as leader he succeeded, albeit limitedly, in executing whatever he believed in.

Alija argued that liberty of opinion and belief was primarily a right to have a different opinion and a different belief. He established a crucial link between freedom and moral, and in his point of view what rendered human existence meaningful was the fact that man was bound and ordered to make a choice since all eternity.

During an interview when he was challenged with a statement that he was known as a “Muslim partaking of European tolerance”, he responded with utmost spiritual conviction that his tolerance was not European but of Muslim origin.

He underlines that Islam is the name for the “unity of spirit and matter”, the highest form of which are humans.

Highlighting an “inherent harmony between man and Islam”, he stresses that ‘’in the same way as humankind is a unity of spirit and body, Islam is a unity of religion and social order.’’

He believed that dictatorship was immoral even if it prohibited sin, morality was inseparable from freedom and only free conduct was moral conduct. To him regardless of all the historical apparitions, dictatorship and religion were mutually exclusive.

Alija shall continue to evoke a multi-dimensional personality, his unconditional efforts for envisaging the Muslim politics and upheaval of Muslim society shall always keep his thoughts alive, but the most striking part of his personality remains his being an intellectual with a sincere resolve and unbridled determination for a system based on justice and rule of law.

The example of his life, his zeal for a just political system, his concern for the decaying Muslim society keeps on motivating thousands of people all over the world into an illumination, overcoming what he called “the eclipse of mind” that societies experience. He passed away on 19th October 2003 but his legacy is still alive


Islam Between East and West

Inescapable Questions: Autobiographical Notes

Notes from Prison, 1983 – 1988

The Islamic Declaration

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