bosnia report
New Series No: 36 October - December 2003
His weakness gave him strength
by Ivan Lovrenovic

In the mid 1980s an all-Yugoslav television programme showed a lengthy two-part documentary film about political prisoners.  This came as a political and cultural shock: the Party officially lifting the taboo on a topic highly dangerous for itself and the system.  The fact that it was deemed  necessary to make this information available to the public (to do so voluntarily) showed how insecure the Party felt at that time.   Alija Izetbegović was included in the cast - as one victim of a Sarajevo show trial in 1983.  Filming in a darkened room (probably in the prison at Foča), the camera focussed on the semi-profile of a man in a white shirt, in such a way that the viewers could never see his face in full.  The reporter asked the prisoner about the conditions of his existence and whether he had any grievances, to which he calmly and succinctly explained: ‘Yes, it’s true that I am wrongfully imprisoned, but I am here because of my ideas, thus also by my own will, so I cannot complain.’  Then he added, with a touch of irony: ‘Maybe, if they’d just give me pen and paper so that I could write, that would be all I  needed.’  It sounded as if he meant that there would then be no need for him to leave that place.


I cannot think of any other episode portraying so accurately and fully one persona of Izetbegović.  A man whose strength was in his temperance, his self-control, whose life was directed mainly towards contemplation and a strong need to bring life to his thoughts through words.  Izetbegović’s two books - The Islamic Declaration and Islam Between East and West - spoke early on of his deeply lived ideas, and of an exceptional ability to distill these into condensed and clear statements.  This image is almost ideally complemented by the fact that he spent his whole life up to 1990 on the margins, separated by a firm political and conceptual border from the official and unofficial conventions of the dominant discourse. 


For us, however, it is another Izetbegović who is important - the one who during the great change of 1990 moved from the margins to the very centre, transforming himself from an outsider into a leader; and who began not only to participate in the dominant discourse, but also fatally to shape it.   In his personal style he would retain many of his beguiling earlier outsider’s characteristics and habits - a strange mixture of natural, gentle dignity, a somewhat old-fashioned recourse to the local dialect in conversation, and great personal charm - which set him apart from the rest of the array of post-Yugoslav leaders, made up overwhelmingly of overbearing ex-Communist party secretaries and military staff generals, people like Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tuđman, with whom he had to deal in the bloody political and military arena created by Yugoslavia’s disintegration. And when events - the apocalyptic destruction of Bosnia, the mass murder and deportation of the Bosniak Muslims, the antediluvian Serb siege and demolition of Sarajevo - sketched out Izetbegović’s public image as the symbol of besieged Sarajevo and identified him with the suffering of a whole people, he became, and for a while indeed functioned, as a planetary icon, of the type and status of a Yasser Arafat or some Balkan Dalai Lama.  


Political record

The true measure of the quality and greatness of a politician are his achievements.  Izetbegović himself endorsed this pitiless verdict, referring to it on several occasions.  What, then, and how great was the political record of this belated political career and this unusual personality, which marked the most terrible decade in the modern history of Bosnia-Herzegovina?  Are those merciless critics in the right, who treat Izetbegović’s achievements as nothing but an endless round of imposed and grave compromises?  Or was he himself right in his conviction that all those painful concessions and defeats were unimportant, since ‘we have preserved Bosnia’, ‘we have preserved the Bosnian idea’, as he frequently expressed his perception of this greatest and most important achievement - which he ascribed  to his party, to his people, and implicitly to himself?


In an important sense of the word Bosnia-Herzegovina has indeed been preserved: under the Dayton Agreement it retained the borders in which, at the start of the war, it gained international recognition and UN membership.  What is seriously in question, however, is the intrinsic value of this success - which directly leads to the problem of ‘the Bosnian idea’.  This is because, thanks to the absurd political structure and constitution created by the Agreement, time is working against Bosnia-Herzegovina: instead of becoming increasingly ‘normal’, it is becoming more and more entropic, politically and administratively unworkable, culturally fragmented, and devoid of social or economic perspective.  What in this situation is one to make of ‘preserving the Bosnian idea’?  If this refers merely to the state framework - within which, however, no conditions exist for any renewal or restructuring of the promised society, even in accordance with a wholly new ‘Bosnian idea’ that is different from all our hopes and plans - then the ‘preserved Bosnian idea’ amounts to no achievement whatsoever. 


Alija Izetbegović, strictly speaking, never gave his ‘Bosnian idea’ a political and intellectual articulation, by contrast with the notions of Islam and Muslims that he so vividly expressed in his aforementioned early works.  It is possible, therefore,  to work out what his idea of Bosnia was only indirectly and guardedly from the totality of his actions, decisions and occasional messages.  However, from the moment he abandoned the famous Platform of the Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina put forward in the spring of 1992 - which did articulate a coherent concept of the struggle for a democratic state and civil society - all attempts to elucidate this idea create more confusion and dilemmas than they provide clear answers about Izetbegović’s perception of Bosnia-Herzegovina.


Delphic syllogisms

During the last few years, after he had retired from active political life, his public messages or advice in regard to this issue could be reduced to two brief and gnomic statements: ‘The future of Bosnia-Herzegovina lies with moderate national parties’; and: ‘Let the Serbs be Serb, the Croats Croat and the Bosniaks Bosniak, but let them all be a little more Bosnian.’  These formulae, on closer analysis, are very similar to the Delphic syllogisms that he often used during the war, when explaining to foreigners the possibility or impossibility of Bosnia.   For instance: ‘Bosnia cannot exist without the Serbs and the Croats; but the Serbs and the Croats abjure Bosnia.’   In the summer of 1994, when asked by a reporter from the Paris daily Libération whether, if the international powers insisted on separation of the Serb and Croat ‘entities’, he would accept the creation of a small Muslim state on the soil of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Izetbegović tellingly replied: ‘No, and for two reasons: first, because it would not work; and secondly,  because the international community would never allow that.’  In an interview the present writer conducted with him in 1997, he approved the following paragraph: ‘I favour a Bosnia to the sea and a Croatia to the Drina.’  When one tries to bring together all that Izetbegović used to say about how he saw Bosnia-Herzegovina, it becomes clear why he never attempted to articulate his own ‘Bosnian idea’: it is because he never had a clear understanding  of it, and never felt the need to give it a form.  Instead he quite pragmatically left it to time and events to bring about what was ‘inevitable’, and adjusted his and his party’s political positions in response. 


He found it easy in his political activity to unite opposites.  He spoke with great confidence of democracy as the only kind of order suitable to Bosnia-Herzegovina, while at times ruling almost autocratically.  He spoke of the need to strengthen the state and its institutions, yet he installed an informal system based on old-fashioned reliance on private bonds and loyalties.  The purposeful Islamization of the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the import of mujahedeen, were among his worst deeds (maybe he only let the latter happen): he greatly damaged both his army and his policy, for minimal if any advantage.


Competing roles

Torn between religion (Islam), nation (Bosniak) and state (Bosnia-Herzegovina); between a view of his own role as ethnic leader, as authority on religious matters, and as legally elected statesman; between a conservative attachment to a confessional organization of Bosnia similar to the old millet system, on the one hand, and a modern, democratic state, civic society and secular culture, on the other; he never managed - nor indeed tried very hard - to produce a doctrine, or at least a practical and operational concept, that could harmonize all these elements within a public stance enabling him to speak to all citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina. 


That Alija Izetbegović as a person and  politician stood apart from our wretched Serbo-Croat-Bosniak average, however, is something that requires no demonstration.  One lasting argument on his behalf and in his favour is the crucial circumstance that - as an unlucky destiny both personal and all-Bosnian-  marked his political career from the start: at all times and in every way Izetbegović was the weaker side, with worse prospects, doomed to perdition.  And yet not only did he survive, but he also emerged politically intact and morally far superior to those with whom he had to deal in the ‘fraternal’ hell of the 1990s.  Last and by no means least is the fact that Alija Izetbegović was the first among the protagonists of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina to find the strength and to possess the necessary moral integrity to offer a full public apology, in the name of the Bosniak people, to all who had been the victims of crimes committed by individuals from among that people.  In every way he was a man who, as in some ancient fable, managed to turn his weakness into strength. 


This obituary article appeared in both Dani (Sarajevo), 24 October 2003,

and Feral Tribune (Split), 25 October 2003.




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