bosnia report
New Series No: 37-38 January - March 2004
Neither Ataturk nor Khomeini
by Gojko Beric

The following pages are intended to give a flavour of the reaction in the B-H media to the death of Alija Izetbegović (see also the article by Ivan Lovrenović and our own editorial in the last issue of Bosnia Report). Unless otherwise indicated texts have been translated from a special issue of the Sarajevo weekly Dani dated October 2004




Neither Ataturk nor Khomeini

Gojko Berić

The death of Alija Izetbegović is the death of a man who fell victim to fate's cruel unpredictability. His life story is unique, caught up as he was in the cataclysmic events of the late twentieth century. As a lawyer working in the management office of the building section of the Bosnian railways in Sarajevo, Izetbegović gazed daily through the window of his office at a similar Austro-Hungarian building across the road where Communist republican leaders were sitting. Many years later, after the first multiparty elections, he became head of state and took over the presidential office from which the regime's guardians, who had twice imprisoned him, had been evicted. A quiet official who had spent most of his life within the walls of an office, prisons and home, he could not have felt on that historic day of change that he was standing at the gates of hell. What Izetbegović went through in the following years one could not wish to one's worst enemy.

Thunder of the 'green cavalry'

I do not know why he was punished like that, a man widely known as an austere and pious man. Yet it would seem that he himself rushed to meet his own and our collective disaster as it approached from the direction of our eastern borders. Led by messianic ambitions, he advanced cannily, cautiously but unstoppably towards the throne of new Muslim leader. SDA electoral campaign meetings grew into a mass movement, with impressive outpourings of hitherto suppressed religious emotions that at times took the form of religious nationalism. This previously taciturn legal adviser to a building firm recognized himself in the awakened mass, which in turn recognized him as its leader. In the midst of a euphoria of 'liberated souls', Izetbegović was abandoned by people like Adil Zulfikarpašić and Muhamed Filipović, who saw a deadly danger for Bosnia in the thunder of the 'green cavalry' by which Alija was borne aloft.

Having lived in a small world, bereft of a wider social and political experience, Izetbegović the politician was bound to lose. He did not know his own people well, let alone the other two. This is testified to by the political loss of Mostar before the outbreak of war. The fall of Communism created in him the illusion that it would be possible to equate life in Bosnia with the religious and philosophical philosophy originating from a pan-Islamic utopia. This was a fatal mistake. It gave a shot in the arm to Serb and Croat nationalisms and led to a symbiosis between the SDA and the Islamic clergy.

Just as King Lear did not see snow blowing into his room through the open window, so Izetbegović failed to see that the freedom gained would be of short duration and that war already loomed on the horizon. When he woke up one morning, war had arrived under his window and under all our windows. There followed a tragic chapter of Izetbegović's life, testimony to his wanderings, painful doubts and confusion. The catastrophic organization of life in besieged Sarajevo was the first serious sign that he was not capable of directing the capital city, let alone the state.

Izetbegović's political opponents among the Bosniaks hold him responsible for the Bosnian and Bosniak tragedy, speak of him in terms of 'political evil' and insist that war could have been avoided. I do not agree. I do not see how the wind of war could have been avoided, given Belgrade's planned aggression and the agreement between Milošević and Tuđman to divide Bosnia-Herzegovina. A Gandhian resistance stood no chance. War could only have perhaps been postponed. This option placed Izetbegović in an inferior position in relation to Milošević. But the flags of the SDA and the HDZ had already been firmly joined. This was Alija's choice. Izetbegović deserved a monument in Zagreb for this, since the historical pendulum could have swung the other way and Croatia would not exist today in its borders. Nevertheless, Tuđman disliked him and made fun of the Muslim people. On the other side, in the eyes of Serbs from both sides of the Drina he has remained an icon of all evils and misfortunes, the main cause of the war and the bloody demise of the common state. They have never forgiven him for resisting them and for preventing the creation of a Greater Serbia, albeit at enormous human cost.

Izetbegović's mistake was not in resisting fascism, which assailed the country from without and from within, but in the ideological transformation of the resistance. The defence initially had elements of civic patriotism, particularly in Sarajevo, but Izetbegović soon gave up this option in favour of turning the army into an Islamic army under his command. He tried hard to make the West treat war and peace in Bosnia as primarily a Muslim issue. The genocide committed against his people, which took place before the eyes of the so-called civilized world, strengthened him in his belief that the Bosnian Muslims, though living in the heart of Europe, belong to another, distant world. When a journalist from the German paper Stern told him that people in the West saw him as a Muslim partaking of European traditions and tolerance, Izetbegović corrected him: 'My tolerance is not of European but of Muslim origin. I am tolerant first because I am a Muslim, only secondly as a European.'

Whether ethnic partition was his real wish or a choice imposed by guns will probably never be known. A number of indications point to the former, but he never admitted this was his intention. At all events, once he accepted the separatist leaders Karadžić and Boban as his negotiating partners, they became his and our permanent political and moral problem, which remains unsolved to this day. What is certain is that Izetbegović never saw Bosnia-Herzegovina as a modern European state. The Platform of the Presidency of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, adopted early on in the war, was not his heartfelt choice. The ideas contained in The Islamic Declaration were stronger than him, but reality was stronger than those ideas.

Leaders are judged by history

Supporters of an integral Bosnia among Sarajevo Serbs and Croats, who mostly had a civic orientation, were for a time very important to him, although he never quite trusted them. Their collective portrait won him important points in the eyes of Western diplomats and politicians, and served as an important proof of his commitment to a multi-ethnic Bosnia. Alija carried the portrait in his luggage also to the Geneva negotiations, only to place it in his wax museum of those he no longer needed - in which some prominent Bosniaks were deposited as well. It seemed useless to him to cultivate people whom their own peoples saw as renegades, traitors and Mensheviks. I can see why, as he himself admitted, he found Momčilo Krajišnik easiest to work with, 'since he represented the interests of his people'. From Izetbegović's point of view this could have been true. But how are we to deal with the fact that a year or two later Krajišnik was taken to The Hague wearing handcuffs?

Izetbegović did not like formal state occasions. It was as if he hid his frail body, so that his appearance was reduced to the gentleness in his sad blue eyes, radiating spiritual power. It is possible that this was the source of his charisma, an attribute which at times overshadowed all his political inadequacies and failures. He disliked even more the rare ceremonies designed to hail him as leader. He preferred to rule over the Bosniaks, rather than be the president of all citizens; it was more important to him to be the father of a political family personified by the SDA, to be deferred to in everything, than to concern himself with the global situation in a state that barely existed. He himself did not aspire to wealth or a grand life, and left dirty deeds - from anti-communist revanchism to wartime and postwar corruption - to others in his party. He insisted that justice and law were his life philosophy, but he did not always hold this banner high in practice. Always ready to defend the dirty deals of those who were loyal to him, he would defend them with the depressingly false claim: 'they are honest men'.

Incompetence excuses no one. Nevertheless, despite all the incompetence he displayed in hard times, Alija Izetbegović is undoubtedly a historic figure. Neither Ataturk nor Tito were his models, but he did not become a Bosnian Khomeini either. He survived Tuđman and witnessed Milošević's trial in The Hague. For most Bosniaks he will remain the 'father of the nation'.

Izetbegović appeared as a man who never wished ill to anyone, which promptly won him respect. I believe that Clinton would rather attend Karadžić's hanging than visit him in hospital. But he did visit the sick Alija, a sufferer whose misfortune was to end in the brutal embrace of history. Izetbegović avoided the lure of revenge, which was not easy given the brutal crimes committed against the Bosniaks. Maybe because he believed that the world was governed not by men but by Allah, Izetbegović was obsessed with 'liberating the souls' of his people; but a better life in heaven was all that he offered them. He died before his symbolic death. It is difficult to say when it too will cross the threshold of his political heritage.

Leaders are judged by history. Is the decade of Izetbegović's era already history? Retiring two years ago from active political life, he declared that he had not realized all his dreams. On the eve of the war he signed the Lisbon agreement, thus opening the door to the ethnic division of his country. Though he subsequently repudiated that agreement, this did not make things right either, however, since the war ordained that each subsequent peace deal would be worse. Forty-odd months later he went to sleep on a November night in Dayton, holding the deed of a fragmented Bosnia-Herzegovina in his hands. It was a parody of the modern state, all that could be saved from the simultaneous chess game which he, unprepared, had been obliged to play against Milošević and Tuđman, Owen and Stoltenberg, and other craftsmen empowered by the international community to draw new maps in the heart of the Balkans. Richard Holbrooke hypocritically praised him, but this did not lessen the bitterness of Izetbegović's personal defeat. He lived in the conviction that his position had left him with no other choice.

Bosnia has survived thanks also to Alija Izetbegović, but we no longer live in the same land. One in ten Bosniaks has been killed, several hundred thousand have become permanent exiles, and what remains of the numerically largest people now lives on one quarter of the territory which belonged to it before the war. This is the tally of Izetbegović's and our own 'ten worst years' - the rest is nothing but sentiment. Deeply religious, he did all he could to earn himself a place in paradise, but I do not believe he left this world a happy man.


Gojko Berić is an author and long-standing reporter for Oslobođenje (Sarajevo).   An earlier essay on Izetbegović by the same author, ‘A leader despite himself’, was included in his Letters to the Celestial Serbs, Saqi Books in association with The Bosnian Institute, London 2002, pp. 258-67 and was posted on our website as a news item on 20 October 2003 following Izetbegović’s death.



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