The Real Izetbegovic

Sometime in the morning of October 19, Alija Izetbegovic passed away in a Sarajevo hospital, marking the end of an era for Bosnia. The treatment of his death spoke volumes about his actions in life. While Muslims mourned the “father of the nation” and Western press and leaders sang him praises, over half of Bosnia’s population – Croats and Serbs – either continued to ignore him, or rejoiced at the word of his passing.

Such sentiments are understandable. Izetbegovic had a major impact on all their lives and destinies, and the manner in which this was the case dictates to a large extent the feeling about him. But beneath the paeans and scoffs persists a myth of an Izetbegovic who never was – a public relations construct for political consumption, markedly different from the old man who shed his mortal coil Sunday morning.

Brave Savior?

Agence France-Presses described Izetbegovic as a “hero of Muslim resistance…who led his country to independence,” who “won worldwide sympathy by running the government from sandbagged buildings during the … siege of Sarajevo,” and “walked to his office through the bombardment… under constant threat from [Serb] artillery and sniper attacks.”

But Bosnia became only a ruined protectorate, and Izetbegovic’s alleged heroics were a media ploy. In reality, Izetbegovic ordered thousands of Sarajevo residents to work and live under constant threat, allowing only those with special government permits to leave the city, while his family was sent to safety and he himself retreated into a bunker. If the city was the Serbs’ hostage, its residents were Izetbegovic’s.

Man of Tolerance?

BBC’s obituary makes Izetbegovic into a victim of Communist repression (which he may have been) and an activist for religious freedom (which he was not). His 1983 trial may have been a farce, but he was a member of a Muslim youth organization that recruited for the Waffen SS during World War Two, and he did write the “Islamic Declaration” in 1970, in which he argued that:

“The exhaustive definition of the Islamic Order is: the unity of religion and law, education and force, ideals and interests, spiritual society and State…the Muslim does not exist at all as an independent individual… […] It is not in fact possible for there to be any peace or coexistence between ‘the Islamic Religion’ and non-Islamic social and political institutions.”

This is as explicit as Islamic fundamentalism gets. Oh, there is also the matter of Muslim soldiers killed in the Bosnian War being called shahaad, “martyr for the faith,” indicating theirs was a Muslim holy war (jihad), not a struggle for some fictitious multi-ethnic utopia. Izetbegovic requested to be buried at the main shahaad cemetery in Sarajevo, next to the holy warriors who died for his vision.

Yet most obituaries dismiss the charge of fundamentalism as something maliciously concocted by Serbs and Croats, who were “sharpening their knives, preparing to carve up Bosnia” (BBC) even as Izetbegovic “worked desperately to preserve [Yugoslavia]” – another bit of contemporary fiction.

Man of Peace?

The Reuters obituary paints Izetbegovic as a peacemaker: “Many observers say Izetbegovic never wanted war as the price of Bosnia’s independence.”

Yet here is Izetbegovic, on February 7, 1991: “I would sacrifice peace for a sovereign Bosnia-Herzegovina… but for that peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina I would not sacrifice sovereignty.” (quoted in Richard Holbrooke, To End A War, Chapter 2, p. 32)

Holbrooke, a self-confessed and proven admirer of Izetbegovic and his cause, offers several descriptions of Izetbegovic’s prevarication that frustrated peace efforts. He would know; he and his associates bent over backwards negotiating on Izetbegovic’s behalf at Dayton, while “Grandpa” (as some of his people called him) constantly frustrated their efforts by rejecting painfully crafted compromises and always asking for more.

The British Independent went so far as to claim that Izetbegovic’s “moment of triumph” came at the signing of the Dayton Agreement, which “confirmed the independence and the multi-ethnic character of Bosnia-Herzegovina, populated by Muslims, Serbs and Croats.” Dayton did no such thing, and Izetbegovic is reported to have signed the agreement in total silence. It was not a triumph, but a defeat.

The Man Who Never Was

More distortions of reality came from Imperial flunkies, like EU’s foreign policy czar Javier Solana, who called Izetbegovic “a very courageous leader for his people” who “played an important role in ending the war in his country.” Solana’s successor as NATO’s Secretary-General, the boorish George Robertson, claimed Izetbegovic “worked hard to preserve the unity and independence of [Bosnia].” France’s President Jacques Chirac praised the “political courage he demonstrated in contributing to national reconciliation.” (AFP) And the Iranian government praised Izetbegovic for “serious attempts to defend… the unity among the residents and various ethnic races” of Bosnia.

Yet Izetbegovic never did any of these things – indeed, he did the exact opposite.

Binder’s Whitewash

But it is the maddening New York Times obituary where the “media Izetbegovic” occludes the real man the most. Penned by David Binder, it offers tantalizing glimpses of truth behind the veils of politically correct drivel aimed to portray Izetbegovic as a tortured, honest, peace-loving, spiritual man who fought for freedom by any means necessary, betrayed by Western powers.

Izetbegovic was hardly honest. According to a famous statement of his, he thought “one thing in the morning, and something else in the afternoon.” He had support of Western governments, if not always to the extent he wanted. His relations with Islamic countries were voluntary and eagerly pursued, not forced by circumstances. He fought for power, not freedom; the “Islamic Declaration” makes it clear individual freedom meant nothing to him. To him, peace meant not the absence of violence, but primacy of his violence over that of others. And his faith, admired by people who have abandoned their own, served to justify in his mind everything he’d said and done.

The Real ‘Grandpa’

Alija Izetbegovic was a complex man: intelligent, cunning, calculated and driven, yet projecting the image of a simpleton which led both his allies and his enemies to gravely underestimate him. Journalists and diplomats genuinely believed his professed reverence for democracy, human rights and multi-ethnic multi-culturalism, even as all evidence indicated it was feigned.

He was a man of strong convictions, and an even stronger desire to force them upon others. Both the “Islamic Declaration” and Islam between the East and the West, his 1970 pamphlet and 1980 book, reveal a philosophical view of Islam not as a relationship between individuals and the divine, but as a system in which society, religion and state become one. No equality, or peaceful coexistence, was possible for non-believers in such a system, and he said as much. Izetbegovic’s vision of Bosnia was not a multi-ethnic democracy, but a multi-caste hierarchy of the kind that existed under the Ottoman Empire, the memories of which were still fresh at his birth in 1925.

Just as Islam dictated Izetbegovic’s philosophy, so did his World War Two experience shape his political relations with Bosnia’s Christian majority, the Serbs and Croats. Between 1941 and 1945, Bosnia was part of the “Independent State of Croatia,” in which Serbs were being persecuted as fiercely as Jews in the Nazi Reich, among others by the Muslim Waffen SS and irregulars, whom Izetbegovic supported.

Politically, Alija Izetbegovic was an autocrat. He muscled out the actual founders of the SDA party before the 1990 election. After the vote, he sidelined the most popular Muslim politician – Fikret Abdic – to become the chairman of the executive Presidium, a function later dubbed the “President of Bosnia.” He used people with ease, purging them when they became too ambitious or too independent. Those who ended up disgraced, beaten or scarred were lucky. Several others were assassinated or executed.

His power was absolute. Izetbegovic was the Bosnian state. Those who served the state served him personally, not the phantom Constitution, not the makeshift flag, not the sham institutions of a non-existent government. This was hardly the example western obituaries had in mind, but that is what he really was.

A Legacy and a Choice

Bosnia’s history is one of conflicts between its various ethnic and religious communities, of which the latest was not the worst. But Izetbegovic’s duplicitous ethnic politics – masquerading as democracy, tolerance and civil society – may have poisoned the well of Bosnian coexistence for generations. His jihad-waging, multi-ethnic democratic autocracy is as plausible today as it was in 1992, when Serbs, Croats and not a few Muslims rejected it as nonsense.

The Great Leader of the Bosnian Muslims may have just died, but his ideas are very much alive. Thing is, truly free people do not need Great Leaders, or father figures, or “grandfathers.” Those 150,000 people expected at Izetbegovic’s funeral Wednesday have not realized that yet. But if they ever mean to free themselves from hatred and fear, and live in peace with their non-Muslim neighbors, they will have to.

Izetbegovic has been laid to rest. His deadly legacy should be, too.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.