The strength of his weakness
by Rasim Kadic
In the summer of 1983, while doing military duty in Gornji Milanovac [in Serbia], being a graduate of the faculty of politics I was perhaps the only one among several thousand soldiers who went to the library each day and read the large daily paper called Borba. Its back page covered only one theme: a trial in Sarajevo. I must admit I did not understand what was at issue, but my instinct - a product of my native Visoko mentality and my Muslim nationality - told me it was an important matter in my personal and our political life. My reading of Borba led to my being questioned by UDBA [the state security service]. This was my first - albeit virtual - meeting with Izetbegović.
Seven years later, at the start of 1990, a school friends called me up: 'Rasim, there’s someone who wants to meet you.' I promptly replied that I would be happy to meet Izetbegović at his pleasure. She was surprised: 'How did you know it was Alija?' I said: 'In this country he is the only one who behaves in such a conspiratorial manner.' At the time I and a whole generation of young people in Bosnia-Herzegovina were engaged in bringing down the last bastion of Communism, and I felt so strong and confident that I feared nothing. By contrast my secretary kept asking: 'What will become of us?'
We met twice and, in what I believe to be the Bosnian Muslim tradition, quickly assumed the personal 'thou' form of address, which he seemed not to mind but which made me rather uncomfortable. We continued to speak as friends who shared good and bad. I can now also admit that I felt a degree of personal responsibility for his imprisonment at a time when I was part of the system that made it happen. It made him appear to me as a victim who had to be given a public apology.
He was a gentle man of few words, determined - but not too confident - that we could achieve great things, since he knew very well what we were confronting. I will always remember one of our conversations: 'All right, Alija, what is it that you want?' He said: 'I want us to create a political party.' I said: 'In that case let's make a Muslim party'. He replied: 'You know, Rasim, that we cannot do it just like that.' At that time the law forbade the creation of national parties, but we in the youth structure [The Alliance of Socialist Youth] defeated that law in parliament a few months later. He then said to me (it still echoes in my ears): 'It’s easy for you, Rasim, to talk; you did not spend six years in Foča [prison], subject to interrogations and abuse.' Ten years after Tito's death, Alija Izetbegović still feared to give a name to his politics, to call his party Muslim. And he never did give it that name, though he later described it as 'a party of the historic Muslim cultural sphere'. I still feel pained by his and our duality, between what we wished for and what was publicly permissible.
I remember during the war Izetbegović in the Presidency using both sides of the paper to write on. Many probably saw this as excessive thrift, but unlike those who argued that it was more important to earn than to save, he preferred frugality. Modesty was the basis of his politics, but also a sense of self-confidence and a certain calm that he derived from Islam, which was the chief determination of his life. This was his great advantage, but also the source of the greatest misunderstanding of the man.
What was the foundation of his political being? The fact that he emerged from six years in prison and became head of state at time when most of his counterparts were hard-bitten Communists; head of a state defined by the principle of 'one in three', and in which his part was in a greatly inferior position, being the weakest and without any real prospects. This made him feel he could not rely on force, which is why he delayed any final decision [on Yugoslavia's break-up]. Others wished for a speedy resolution regardless of the consequences: Janez Drnovšek, for example, made a quick deal with Milošević based on the JNA evacuating Slovenian territory. Izetbegović, like Spaho before him, was faced with a choice of either entering Milošević's Yugoslavia or resisting it. One should honour him for his declaration that a state which did not recognize his people meant nothing to him. He believed this. He would utter brave words, even if it did not seem so at the time: ‘I’d sacrifice peace for the sake of freedom.’ Those were big words, unfortunately with big consequences. But I wonder where would we be without him. Would there have even been another side [against Milošević's Yugoslavia] in Bosnia-Herzegovina? Would the consequences of this have been worse or not? It is possible that, without him, I and many others would have become more extreme. The generation of young 'Bosnian' nationalists was perhaps ready for more radical action. [...]
In my view the best thing that Izetbegović said when out of Bosnia was at the conference of Islamic countries held in Teheran. There, in front of all the Muslim leaders, he spoke the famous sentence: ‘Islam is best, but we are not.’ He told me later: 'I wrote it down in the plane, but it is a thought with which I have lived for the past fifty years or more.' He had sufficient courage to say what he thought about his Islam, but also to admit what he thought of those who practised it, for he continued: '...because their schools are better, their streets are better, their nursery schools and parks are cleaner, their children are better educated.'
When I think about what I would have done in Alija's place, I must admit that I would have been both tougher and more radical. Maybe it is because the majority of us would have been tougher and more radical that it was lucky, perhaps, that he grew up in a time when we [Muslims] suffered injustice, and that he was sufficiently devout to know that one should not commit injustice against others, because that would have brought us untold harm.
Rasim Kadić is president of the Social Liberal Party of B-H and a former minister for refugees