Izetbegovic, Alija (1925–2003)

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Bosnian Muslim activist, author, and politician.

Alija Izetbegović (8 August 1925–19 October 2003) was the leading Muslim political figure in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the twentieth century and was de facto president of Bosnia at the time it was recognized as an independent country in 1992. He had been imprisoned in socialist Yugoslavia from 1983 to 1988 for "counterrevolutionary acts derived from Muslim nationalism" based on his writings. While in no sense an Islamic extremist, he was a very strong advocate of Islam and of the rights of Muslims throughout the world and specifically in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they comprise the largest single group.

Izetbegović was active in Muslim causes throughout his life. During World War II, when Germany and its allies occupied Yugoslavia, Izetbegović joined a group called "The Young Muslims," a nationalist organization promoting the interests of the Muslim community in Bosnia. This Muslim nationalist group was opposed to Josip Broz Tito's (1892–1980) Communists, and Alija Izetbegović was one of thousands imprisoned for anticommunist activities in 1946, as communist rule was consolidated. However, after three years in prison, Izetbegović was able to attend the University of Sarajevo, where he earned a law degree. He worked as a lawyer for the next thirty years.

Since at least the late nineteenth century, Bosnian politics have revolved around relations among the country's three largest communities: Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. Even during the regime of the officially atheist communists, great care was taken to ensure that none of these groups could dominate the others. Throughout his life, Alija Izetbegović argued for the need for Muslims throughout the world to unite and to strengthen their political power and religious identity. In communist Yugoslavia, claims that the Muslims should be more self-assertive were not only counter to communist atheism but also threatened to upset the political consensus that prohibited promoting the interests of any one of Bosnia's people over the others.

As communism failed in the late 1980s, however, Bosnia's people manifested once again the pre-communist political pattern in which Muslims voted overwhelmingly for one Muslim party, Serbs for one Serb party, and Croats for one Croat party. Izetbegović, newly freed from imprisonment for his pro-Muslim writings, founded what became the dominant Muslim political party in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA from its Serb-Croatian initials), in March 1990. In the elections eight months later, the SDA won the great majority of votes from the 44 percent of Bosnia's population who were Muslim. Since no single group formed a majority of Bosnia's population, no single party received a majority of the vote, and the SDA ruled as part of a coalition with the leading Serb and Croat parties. Reflecting the complications of Bosnia's ethnic politics, the country had a collective presidency of seven members, two from each of the major groups and one additional member representing those not Muslim, Serb, or Croat. As leader of the largest party, Alija Izetbegović became president of this collective presidency. In theory he only represented decisions of the collective body, and the position of president of the presidency was to rotate to a Croat member. In practice, Izetbegović acted as sole president and did not rotate out of the presidency when his term should have expired.

Aware that most Serbs and many Croats did not favor Bosnian independence, Izetbegović sought to prevent Yugoslavia's collapse, but when that did happen he pursued independence even knowing that to do so risked war. The collective government also collapsed, with the elected Serb representatives and many of the Croats withdrawing. However, Izetbegović consistently favored a multiethnic government, at least publicly, and worked with other Serb and Croat representatives. He was a very effective representative of the Bosnian cause in international politics throughout the 1992–1995 war.

Following the war, in early 1996 Izetbegovic became the first president of a new, smaller collective presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but he finally retired in 2000 due to failing health. Until his death from heart failure in October 2003 he remained one of the most popular figures among Bosnian Muslims, but not among the Serbs and Croats.

See alsoBosnia-Herzegovina; Yugoslavia.


Primary Sources

Izetbegović, Alija. Inescapable Questions: Autobiographical Notes. 2nd ed. Translated by Saba Rissaluddin and Jasmina Izetbegović. Leicester, U.K., 2002.

Secondary Sources

Burg, Steven L., and Paul Shoup. The War in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Ethnic Conflict and International Intervention. Armonk, N.Y., and London, 1999.

Silber, Laura, and Allan Little. Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation. New York, 1996.

Robert M. Hayden