Alija and his Bosnia remain a mystery for me
by Fra Petar Andelovic
Whenever one chatted over coffee with Alija Izetbegović, there was always a question hanging in the air: 'Who is this man in fact? What is he all about?' - and yet it was precisely at such moments that he was intimate, simple, a friend. We would talk about everyday life - about people and how they were living, whether they thought of God, when this madness would end, and so on - while outside, we must not forget, guns were bellowing, shells were falling, and the people of Sarajevo were dying ... And again I would ask myself: ‘How does this man manage to change his thoughts and feelings, like someone changing his suit or turning over the leaves of a picture album’ - even though it was evident that he remained all the time preoccupied with Bosnia and, one can say, even more with the Bosniaks. During the conversation he would angrily say every now and then:'What has possessed them, what have these poor people done to them?' - and then continue to talk calmly about ordinary people's ordinary concerns.
Who indeed was this man?
He would frequently invite me for such talks, usually after early evening prayers, so naturally these would usually end with an expression of trust in God: it was He who would decide our fate, not the people on the hills or people from Serbia or Croatia - at least this seemed to us perfectly clear. I would leave feeling somehow comforted. But before reaching home I would be assailed by new doubts: I wanted to get to know him better, understand his Bosnia, yet felt I knew less than I had before our conversation, although we had spent the whole time talking about it. Was he playing games with me, I would ask myself.
My suspicions would be heightened by people talking to me about Izetbegović and by media reports. Their conclusion would be: This is Alija's style of warfare, artful in the oriental manner; he takes coffee with you but orders the murder of those closest to you. This I could not believe, however. Why would he wish to trick me? We supported the same kind of Bosnia, an integral and lawful state in which all would prosper; we dreamed together of Bosnia's and our own future. After all, this was the man who at the celebration of the seven-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Franciscans in Bosnia said 'Silver Bosnia is that unbroken thread that links mediaeval Bosnia, the banovina and the kingdom, with the present state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This is why this order is a living monument to Bosnia-Herzegovina's cultural, national and state individuality [and] in the future too will remain an indelible testimony to Bosnia-Herzegovina's own being.' He said the same thing during his visit to the Vatican, when I had the chance to accompany him to his audience with the Holy Father. Quite apart from that, he was the man who shed tears with me in my office when two Bosnian Franciscans were killed in Fojnica. I asked myself, what kind of man was Alija Izetbegović?
I thought I would learn the answer when, at the end of 2000, I heard about the impending publication of his Memoirs - autobiographical notes. I read these with the greatest interest, in the hope that Alija would 'show his hand'; that I would come closer to his mystery and the mystery of his Bosnia. Izetbegović says a great deal in his memoirs, to be sure, but skilfully - I do not know whether intentionally - he leaves everything in fragments, since as he writes: 'whole parts of my life I have either forgotten or are only mine. That which remains too is more of a chronicle than a biography, a story of events that attended my life, told truly and sincerely insofar as a personal story can be told' (p.11).
But he did nonetheless reveal some of 'his own': for example, that his mother was a very devout woman and that he owed to her his attachment to a faith that, however, was not simply inherited, but became in time a 'regained faith' that he would never lose (p.23). The Islamic faith, Izetbegović did not hide, was the driving force of his activity. He and his friends, the Young Muslims, believed that Islam was a living idea that could be modernized while retaining its substance. This approach is present also in The Islamic Declaration, announced to the world in 1970. In it Alija argues that: 'only Islam can stimulate the imagination of the Muslim masses and enable them to intervene in their own history. Ideas imported from the West cannot do this.' This message was attacked as fundamentalist, 'which it was', Alija writes, 'but in the special sense of a return to the origins.' (p.35).
He argues this out, writing that: 'Islam is a great metaphor for the "third way" or every form of life the formula of which is man.' 'In fact', he writes, the declaration was 'only a testimony to a vision of the world' (p.37) which grew out of the conviction that without God there is no man, and that morality is nothing but 'another, aggregated state of religion'. The Declaration sought to say that Islam is a religion but simultaneously also a philosophy, an ethics, an ambience - in a word, an integral way of life. The Islamic movement is hence a unity of faith and politics, and it is not surprising that the young Muslims (and Alija among them) believed that the movement should and could take power as soon as it was morally and numerically sufficiently strong to be able not only to replace the existing non-Islamic government but also to create a new Islamic one. At all events, this was the core of the 1983 charge against them, and for many it still remains unclear whether Izetbegović had abandoned this understanding of the Islamic movement, and the doctrine that Islam means an integral way of life.
Champion of the Islamic Cause
'I was a Muslim', writes Alija in his Memoirs, 'and would remain one. I felt myself to be a champion of the Islamic cause in the world and remained this to the end of my life. This is because for me Islam is another name for all that is beautiful and noble; and also for the promise of, or hope for, a better future for the Muslim peoples, for their lives lived in dignity and freedom - in a word, for all that I believe makes life worth living'(p.50). His religion, he frequently states, prevented him from falling into despair at even the most difficult moments. He does not think himself a hero, but wishes to remain true to his convictions. One spends one's life talking about something and thinking you believe in it, but every man meets his moment of truth. He considered the war as the moment of truth for him and his people: 'Our people is a devout people, although it does not spend all its time in the mosque, we know this well. Don't touch what is holy to it. Our people is fighting for freedom and more - for survival. Such a struggle is usually arduous, but it cannot be easily lost either (p.177).' He thought and never gave up the belief that: 'Bosnia's future will be decided by Bosniaks, and our position is clear: we will not surrender Bosnia (p.354).' This is why he counts among his greatest achievements, he declared in June 2000, that in 1991 and 1992, when there was a real danger that Bosnia would become a Serbian province, he prevented this from happening. 'I prevented this', Alija writes confidently, 'and believe this to be my greatest achievement'. But he omits to say that 'the slow process of establishment of a unified, democratic and prosperous Bosnia-Herzegovina in peacetime' (p.395) was his greatest failure.
This is what Izetbegović thought, and was ready to state publicly: 'I do not want a Muslim Bosnia, I want a unified Bosnia ... in which never again will it be possible to conduct genocide against the Bosniak people' (p.325). In a conversation with [Abdulah] Sidran in 1996 he said that he believed that: 'by the year 2030 Bosnia will be alive and well! I could not work without being convinced of this.'
In order to get to know Alija Izetbegović, one should go through the pages of his Memoirs; but even then one will not be sure who Alija really is and what his Bosnia is like. He believed in his mission, in the role of the individual. Thus he says at one point in his memoirs: 'Countries that called themselves socialist underwent different evolutions. What one can immediately spot is the strong influence of the leading personalities on the real situation in those countries. Though they were based on the same ideological formula, the real conditions of life of the citizens varied from country to country, depending on the individual who headed them. Zhivkov, Hoxha, Ceauşescu, Tito - four different men and also four different regimes. This, however, did not change the authoritarian nature of the system (p.38).'
What has he achieved, how much has he influenced the course of events? Alija considers this too. He asks himself whether he is a loser, and writes: 'There was a question that preoccupied me most of all: the question of famous losers' - and he immediately transfers it to the religious sphere, proclaiming it 'the deepest religious problem'(p.37). He continues: 'Are Antigone, Socrates, Jesus losers? If they are, why do they appear famous in our eyes? Whence originates our admiration for fallen heroes, which has accompanied us since the prehistoric Iliad and Epic of Gilgamesh?'
Alija did not 'fall', but in some way he was a victim, which gained him much sympathy. He himself says that: 'we cannot find sympathy for the victim in our mind, but only in our soul - i.e. in a principle that is "not of this world". I say sympathy and not understanding, since it is not and cannot be a matter of understanding'. And his conclusion is that: 'all our thoughts and wisdom could not explain or justify a single case of sacrificing life for justice and truth' (p.37).
Izetbegović, I am convinced, used his life for 'justice and truth' - naturally as he understood them. Some will say that these are not 'of this world', and who made them will not be grasped through 'thought and wisdom'. Since Alija and his Bosnia remain a mystery, at least for me, I cannot say whence comes our admiration for this man.
Fra Petar Anđelović is former Guardian of Bosnia’s Franciscan order