Bosnian vision that bled to death: Dreamer or fundamentalist? Whatever the truth, says Tony Barber, war has killed off Alija Izetbegovic's hopes for his homeland
Sunday 04 July 1993
The sixth man is a former anti- Communist dissident, jailed twice for his beliefs. Today his republic is a war zone, its capital city ravaged, its biggest nationality pinned into miserable enclaves, its economy bleeding to death, its men killing each other with artillery shells and rifles, its women widowed, its children orphaned. He is Alija Izetbegovic, the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Bosnia is a member of the United Nations, a country whose declaration of independence last year was encouraged by the United States and the European Community. But the parents have deserted their infant. By the end of this year, even the diplomatic fiction of a united Bosnia will probably have been abandoned. Instead there will be Serbian Bosnia, poised to merge with Serbia, Croatian Bosnia, poised to merge with Croatia, and a few slithers of land for the Muslims.
Some people - not least, Serbs and Croats - believe Mr Izetbegovic shares responsibility for the Bosnian catastrophe. At best, they say, he clung stubbornly to a false dream: a single Bosnian state in which Muslims, Serbs and Croats would share power and respect each other's rights. At worst, his enemies allege, he was a Muslim fundamentalist out to create an Islamic state in Europe, and he deserved the retribution inflicted by the Serbs and Croats.
Mr Izetbegovic was born in the northern Bosnian town of Bosanski Samac on 8 August, 1925. As a teenager, he experienced the horrors of the Yugoslav civil war of the 1940s. Many of the worst atrocities occurred in Bosnia, and the Communist victors wasted no time in executing and imprisoning their enemies. In Bosnia, they turned their attention on the Young Muslims, an organisation committed to defending Bosnia's Muslim Slav people. Tito and his comrades labelled the group terrorist and outlawed it.
Mr Izetbegovic had just started his law studies at Sarajevo University when a police informer denounced him as a member of the Young Muslims. He was sentenced in 1946 to three years in prison for 'pan-Islamic' activities - that is, alleged attempts to set up an Islamic state. After his release, he resumed his education and practised law, but the security police kept a close eye on him.
They took a particular interest in his efforts to develop a theory of Islam that was compatible with modern civilisation. In his major works, such as Islam Between East and West and Problems of the Islamic Renaissance, he makes clear his devotion to Islam and advocates a 'moral renewal' in the Muslim world. But he contends that Muslims living in a multi-cultural country should not have intransigent social attitudes.
By 1983, the Communist authorities had had enough and put Mr Izetbegovic and 12 other Muslims on trial for 'counter-revolutionary acts derived from Muslim nationalism'. The future Bosnian president received a 14-year sentence, of which he served almost six years.
The main charge against him - and the one that Serbian and Croatian nationalists continue to cite - concerned a 50-page treatise, The Islamic Declaration, that he had written in 1970. The prosecutors said the work showed that Mr Izetbegovic wanted to create an ethnically pure Muslim state out of Bosnia, Kosovo and other Muslim-inhabited parts of Yugoslavia. They called it 'the modernised platform of the former terrorist organisation, the Young Muslims'.
In his defence, Mr Izetbegovic said his treatise 'offers a vision of a democratic and humanistic social order'. The work praises Pakistan as a model for 'the introduction of an Islamic order under modern conditions', but also argues that 'the Islamic order can only be established in countries where Muslims represent the majority of the population'.
After the Communists lost their grip on power in 1990, Mr Izetbegovic founded a political party called the Party of Democratic Action (PDA). It rapidly won favour with Bosnia's Muslims. In December 1990, when Bosnia held free elections, the PDA won 86 of the 240 seats in Bosnia's assembly. But the vote split on ethnic lines: Serbs voted for the Serbian Democratic Party, which won 72 seats, and Croats voted for the Croatian Democratic Community, which won 44 seats.
As the leader of the largest party, Mr Izetbegovic became Bosnia's president. At this stage he did not want an independent Bosnia. His solution to Yugoslavia's troubles was to turn the country into a loose, confederal union with most powers devolved to republics and regions. It was, however, too late. Croatia was hell-bent on full independence, and Serbia was hell-bent on bolstering the position of Serbs living in Croatia and Bosnia.
The outbreak of war in June 1991 concentrated the attentions of Mr Milosevic and Mr Tudjman on Bosnia. Both had proxies in the republic, eager to seize land at the Muslims' expense. Whether Mr Izetbegovic could have halted Bosnia's break-up is debatable. But his determination to keep Bosnia together as a multi-national republic with an active central government meant that, while the Serbs and Croats acquired weapons and drew up maps of partition, the lightly armed Muslims grew ever more vulnerable.
Mr Izetbegovic may also have misjudged the mood of the Bosnian Serbs. When Serbian militants threw up barricades in Sarajevo in March 1992, he led a huge citizens' protest around the city and the barricades came down. The president took this as a sign that ordinary people's desire for peace would triumph over the ambitions of the extremists. It was not so. War broke out in April, Muslim towns were overrun in eastern Bosnia, and Sarajevo came under siege. In May, Serbian forces in Sarajevo kidnapped Mr Izetbegovic as he returned from peace talks in Lisbon. He was held for 24 hours until the EC and UN secured his release.
In 15 months of war, he has argued repeatedly that the Muslim- led government forces could reverse the Serbian and Croatian conquests if the UN arms embargo was lifted. He did not like the Vance-Owen plan for a decentralised Bosnia of 10 mainly ethnically-based provinces, but he eventually signed it - only to see the West tear it up.
Nothing remains of his original vision for his homeland. Mr Izetbegovic feels a bitter sense of betrayal - by the West, which told him it believed in Bosnian independence, by the United Nations, which promised to protect his people, and by Serbs and Croats, who talked peace but dealt in war.
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