Bosnian Leader Championed Religious Pluralism

By Stephen Schwartz, Forward Correspondent

Published October 24, 2003, issue of October 24, 2003.
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Alija Izetbegovic, the courtly, avuncular former leader of the Muslim-led Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, died October 19 in Sarajevo, at age 78. His health had been deteriorating in recent weeks, a result of heart disease, and his end was hastened by a bad fall, in which he broke several ribs.

Izetbegovic became a global figure following the 1992 declaration of independence by Bosnia, which had previously been a constituent republic in the communist federation of Yugoslavia. Efforts to establish a multiethnic government representing Bosnia’s Muslims, Serbs and Croats were met with fierce resistance from ethnic Serb militias, which led to a four-year civil war, marked by massive Serb-led atrocities. Amid the bloodshed, Izetbegovic emerged as an international symbol of Bosnian endurance.

Izetbegovic was the leader of the Democratic Action Party, which advocated a moderate, pluralistic form of political Islam. Under Bosnia’s ethnic power-sharing plan, he served as one of three co-presidents alongside Croat and Serb leaders. Muslims make up some 44% of Bosnia’s population, Orthodox Serbs 37% and Catholic Croats 17%.

Izetbegovic enjoyed respect and affection across the Bosnian ethnic and religious spectrum, but especially among the tiny Sephardic Jewish community that survived Nazism. Before 1941, Jews made up 20% of the population of Sarajevo, which was a leading center of Ladino language and culture. In more recent years, the Jewish community, though greatly diminished, continued to play a significant role in Bosnia’s cultural and political life.

Thanks to the pluralism championed by Izetbegovic, the Muslim-led Bosnian government attracted considerable support from Jews, both within the republic and in other nations. Several prominent Bosnian Jews joined the republican forces at the start of the war, including the cantor of the synagogue, David Kamhi, who bore member No. 001 of the so-called Muslim Green Berets. In the West, numerous mainstream Jewish organizations and leaders forcefully adopted the Bosnian cause.

Izetbegovic was the only leader to emerge in the first round of violence following the collapse of Yugoslavia who had never belonged to the Communist Party. Born in 1925 in the picturesque town of Bosanski Samac, he had already undergone his first imprisonment for alleged “pan-Islamism” under the communist regime of Josef Broz Tito by the time he earned a law degree from the University of Sarajevo in 1956. He served a second prison term from 1983 to 1988.

When Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia in March 1992, following the earlier departures of Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia, no other Bosnian public figure enjoyed the credibility of Izetbegovic, who was widely known as Dedo or Babo — “Grandfather” or “Dad.” When the Serbian invasion of Bosnia-Herzegovina began, accompanied by mass rapes, expulsions and the erection of concentration camps, Bosnia was barely known to the world. Izetbegovic was suddenly thrust forward as its Muslim leader and national representative.

During the 43-month siege of Sarajevo by Serb forces, he remained in the blood-soaked capital, where 12,000 Sarajevans were killed, including more than 1,000 children. He later had to contend with the disloyalty of a former ally, as Croatians exploited Bosnia’s difficulties to lop off sections of its territory. The Bosnian war ended with American intervention and imposition of the Dayton accords in 1995.

Izetbegovic’s extensive writings, including a major volume, “Islam Between East and West,” revealed a spiritual man who struggled with the disparity between past Muslim glory and present Western success. Opponents of the Bosnian Muslims frequently sought to portray him as an extremist, ripping his words out of context, but the gambit rarely succeeded. In one of his most famous statements, in 1997 he told the Organization of the Islamic Conference, in Tehran: “Islam is the best, but we [Muslims] are not the best…. The West is neither corrupted nor degenerate…. Instead of hating the West, let us… proclaim cooperation instead of confrontation.”

Although Bosnian Muslims are known as a fractious and often unforgiving people, Izetbegovic was deeply loved as a symbol of commitment, patience and civility. Thanks largely to his influence, the Bosnian army, despite its high proportion of traditionalist Muslim fighters, managed in the main to avoid revenge attacks of the sort inflicted on Bosnians by enemy Serb and Croat forces. In the words of the popular singer Safet Isovic, Bosnian Muslims fought for “the smell of Ramadan in our markets… our old songs, the voice of the muezzin, and our white mosques.”

Izetbegovic was a hero to the Muslim world, and the first sura of the Koran, known as Fatiha, will be recited for him by millions, in the way traditional Muslims mark the death of a loved one.

Izetbegovic resigned from the Bosnian presidency in 2000. He is survived by his wife, Halida, and his children, Bakir, Sabina and Lejla.

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