Izetbegovic, Alija

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Alija Izetbegovic

BORN: August 8, 1925 • Bosanski Samac, Kingdom of Serbs

DIED: October 19, 2003 • Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnian president

Alija Izetbegovic (I-zet-beg-o-vic) was president of the nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1990 to 2000. The decade of the 1990s was a time of great political and ethnic upheaval in the Bosnian region. He was first elected president of this Yugoslavia republic in December 1990 following the end of Communist domination of the region. Communism is a system of government governed by a single dominant political party that controls all aspects of society. Private ownership of property is prohibited and all religious practices are banned. Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of six republics of Yugoslavia at the time.

"Bosnia is a complicated country: three religions, three nations and those 'others.' Nationalism is strong in all three nations; in two of them there are a lot of racism, chauvinism, separatism; and now we are supposed to make a state out of that."

The major ethnic groups in Yugoslavia were Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrins, Albanians, and Bosnians. The Communist Party was replaced by a number of political parties. Each party was largely associated with a particular ethnic group. When Izetbegovic declared independence for Bosnia from Yugoslavia in April 1992, three years of bloody ethnic conflict followed between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims.

A family of Muslims

Izetbegovic was born in August 1925 in Bosanski Samac, a town located in northern Bosnia. He was one of five children. Izetbegovic's father was an accountant and before Alija was born the family was well-to-do, living within the Serbian region of the Ottoman Empire (a vast Turkish empire comprising parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe, founded in the thirteenth century and dissolved after 1918). They were devout Muslims (worshipers of Islam). The Ottoman Turks had brought the Islamic religion to the region in the fifteenth century. They fled to Bosanski Samac in Bosnia after Serbia gained its political independence from the empire in 1918. They feared retaliation from the new leaders against those who prospered during the Ottoman rule. Izetbegovic's grandfather was the mayor of Bosanski Samac.

In 1929, when Izetbegovic was just four years old, his father declared bankruptcy and moved the family to the Bosnian city of Sarajevo. There Izetbegovic received his schooling. Ten years later in 1939, World War II (1939–45) began when German forces invaded Poland. Over the next few years, more European countries fell under German control. In 1941, German forces invaded Yugoslavia. Bosnia was placed under the rule of Croatia, where Germany had established a puppet government (a government controlled by a foreign country).

Considerable ethnic violence occurred during the war. The Croatian government conducted mass murders of Serbs and Serbs massacred Bosnian Muslims and Croats. Still just a teenager, Izetbegovic joined a Muslim youth organization. It promoted a return to traditional Islamic values and rejection of nationalism (a very strong allegiance to a particular nation). With Germany still occupying Bosnia, he graduated from high school in 1943 and entered an agricultural school. He studied the next three years before becoming interested in law studies.

Promoting Islam in a communist state

Near the end of the war in 1944, a multi-ethnic Yugoslav force led by Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980) forced out the Germans. He gained control of Yugoslavia and sought to end ethnic violence. Tito established a communist government called the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and suppressed all ethnic and religious activities. Yugoslavia was under the direct influence of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union like other Eastern European communist governments created immediately after World War II. However, Tito was a strong ruler who maintained a greater degree of independence for Yugoslavia than was enjoyed by other nations. The new Yugoslav government imprisoned hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans and those Yugoslavs who disagreed with his ethnic cleansing program to labor camps and executed tens of thousands.

In 1946 Tito formed a secret police service (the UDBA) that executed Nazi collaborators, Catholic priests, and anyone who opposed the Communist-led government. His administration had become a virtual dictatorship. Izetbegovic had helped publish a dissident (opposed to the existing government) Islamic journal called Soldier of God in English. In 1946, the UDBA closed down the press and sent those involved with the publication to prison. Among them was Izetbegovic, who was convicted of hostile activity, including making anti-Soviet statements. In March 1946, he was sentenced to three years in prison.

In 1949, Izetbegovic received his release from prison and enrolled in the University of Sarajevo, where he earned a law degree in 1956. For the next twenty-five years, he worked as a lawyer and advisor for two large public corporations in Sarajevo, one in construction and the other in communications. Izetbegovic married Halida Repovac and they had three children. One son, Bakir, later became the head of Izetbegovic's security force.

Izetbegovic resumed publishing dissident literature promoting the Bosnian Muslim perspective in Yugoslav politics and society. He argued for a more fundamentalist, or strict observance, approach based on Islamic principles. He did not want to see Bosnian Muslims become absorbed by Serbian and Croatian nationalism. He recorded his beliefs and concerns in a 1970 book, The Islamic Declaration. In it, Izetbegovic called for renewal of a strong adherence to an Islamic way of life. He argued for a united Islamic community based on the Qur'an (also known as the Koran, the main religious text of Islam), while promoting modern education and economic improvement. Many viewed his book as a radical statement since he condemned non-Islamic beliefs and societies. These viewpoints of the Bosnian Muslims like Izetbegovic were unpopular with Tito and his communist government.

A longer prison term

Tito died in 1980. Without a strong ruler like Tito around to keep ethnic tensions suppressed, social unrest began to surface. Also, anticommunist feelings developed in the region. Izetbegovic contributed to this trend with his 1980 book Islam Between East and West. It is considered his most influential work. In it, Izetbegovic compared the basic elements of Islam with that of communism and Christianity. The Yugoslav government began cracking down on dissidents, including nationalists and Muslim fundamentalists. Izetbegovic was once again arrested in 1983 for his publications.

In April 1983, Izetbegovic was tried in a Bosnian court with twelve other Muslim activists for their alleged hostile behavior. Izetbegovic was convicted and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, were watching what was going on in Yugoslavia. They strongly criticized the verdicts of Izetbegovic and the others since the condemned had used no force or even advocated the use of force against the government. Influenced by these organizations, the convictions were appealed to the Bosnian Supreme Court. The court ruled that indeed these were not criminal acts. However, Izetbegovic's sentence was reduced by just two years.

Izetbegovic considered these trials to be aimed more against Islam than against any individuals such as him. The Yugoslav public began viewing Muslims with suspicion after the publicity of the trials by the state-controlled media. As the communist government began crumbling, Izetbegovic received a pardon (a release from legal penalties) freeing him from imprisonment in 1988 after serving less than six years of his sentence. Nonetheless, while in prison Izetbegovic began suffering from heart disease leaving him permanently impaired.

Forming Modern Bosnia

Bosnia is more formally referred to as Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia refers to all of the nation except for a small, mountainous region in the southwest known as Herzegovina. Located in southeastern Europe, Croatia is Bosnia's neighbor to the north and west and Serbia and Montenegro to the east.

The Ottoman Turks had gained control of Bosnia in 1463. The Ottoman Turks ruled a vast multi-ethnic region that included southeastern Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Africa for several centuries. In 1878, the Austro-Hungarian Empire that controlled much of central Europe acquired control of Bosnia from the Ottomans and formally annexed the region as part of its empire in 1908. Serbia at the time had been seeking control of Bosnia because of the many ethnic Serbs living in Bosnia. In protest of the Austro-Hungarian rule, Bosnian Serb militant group assassinated the crown prince of Austria while visiting Sarajevo in Bosnia in late June 1914. This event triggered World War I. Following the defeat of the Austro-Hungarians in 1918, Bosnia became part of the newly formed Yugoslavia, with the Serbs in power.

Multi-ethnic politics

The fall from power of the communist party in the late 1980s led to the rapid growth of multiple political parties, often based on ethnic affiliations. Izetbegovic and other Bosnian Muslims formed the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) in 1989. Izetbegovic was elected its leader upon the founding of the party. Other ethnic groups of the region, including Croats and Serbs, came from Christian backgrounds and formed Catholic and Orthodox communities. They wanted independent ethnic states rather than a Muslim community, as Izetbegovic advocated. They considered the Muslims an outside influence to the region, introduced during the Turkish Ottoman occupation.

In the November 1990 multi-party elections, the SDA received more votes than any other party for seats in the new government of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The election results reflected the overall ethnic makeup of the nation. To ease ethnic tensions, the presidency of Bosnia was created as a committee of seven members—two Croats, two Serbs, two Bosnian Muslims, and one non-ethnic affiliation. At the age of sixty-five, Izetbegovic was elected as one of the two Muslims and was unanimously selected by the new committee to be its leader on December 20, 1990.

Ethnic wars

In 1991, about 44 percent of the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina was Muslim Slavs, 31 percent was Eastern Orthodox Serbs, 17 percent was Roman Catholic Croats, and the remaining 8 percent was of various mixed backgrounds. Prior to 1990, these groups were highly mixed in almost all of the country. This situation was about to dramatically change.

By 1991, the Yugoslavian communist government had fully collapsed, leaving a federation of six republics. Through the early months of 1991, Izetbegovic proposed a new Yugoslav federation, or alliance, of the Yugoslav republics. They would be more politically independent of each other than before. However, this proposal was rejected by the Serbs and the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic (1941–2006). Soon, fighting between Serbs and Croats in neighboring Croatia began increasing ethnic tensions within Bosnia. During 1991, the other Yugoslav republics of Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia declared independence, leaving Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia as the sole remaining members of the Yugoslav federation.

Though soft-spoken with a pleasant demeanor, Izetbegovic was to be a key figure in the ethnic conflicts that gripped the region for the next several years. From his presidential position, he tried to maintain peaceful relations within Bosnia. Izetbegovic hoped to make Bosnia a multi-ethnic state. However, both the Bosnian Serbs and Croats sought their own countries. They both pulled out of the shared Bosnian government. The surge for nationalism by different ethnic groups led to armed conflict. Within months, Serbian militia (small civilian armed units), with help from the Yugoslav army, had seized control of most of Bosnia. The Serbs began declaring independence for the areas they controlled by January 1992.

Under pressure from other European nations, in January 1992 an agreement known as the Carrington-Cutileiro peace plan after the two diplomats who led in its development was signed by representatives of the Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. The agreement would divide the country into three ethnic regions. Izetbegovic was the Bosnian Muslim representative. However, two weeks after signing the agreement, Izetbegovic withdrew his signature because he could just not accept dividing Bosnia into separate ethnic sections. He could not give up on the idea of a fully united Bosnia. The agreement fell apart.

Bosnian Muslims face ethnic cleansing

Returning from the failed negotiations in Lisbon, Portugal, Izetbegovic called for a national referendum (general public vote) to determine the public support for independence for Bosnia. With the Bosnian Serbs boycotting (refusing to use or deal with) the referendum, the vote for independence by the Bosnian Muslim population was overwhelming. Based on the referendum results, the Bosnian parliament, or assembly, voted for independence from Yugoslavia on February 29. As president, Izetbegovic formally declared independence on March 3. On April 7, the European Union and the United States extended official recognition to Bosnia.

Fighting continued between Bosnian Muslims and the Bosnian Serbs who did not want independence. Izetbegovic was hoping that formal recognition of Bosnia would bring international support including peacekeeping forces, but none were sent. The Bosnian Federation Army was poorly equipped. As a result, Bosnian Serb militias and Yugoslav armed forces maintained control over large areas of Bosnia.

Izetbegovic became trapped in the besieged city of Sarajevo. The surrounding Serbian forces relentlessly shelled the town. In other parts of the country, the Serbs began a program of ethnic cleansing (deliberate attempt to eliminate an entire ethnic group) against the Muslims. They destroyed Muslim mosques (places of worship) and massacred Muslim populations by the thousands.

Receiving no support from the Western international organizations or countries, Izetbegovic sought assistance from Muslim countries. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Libya sent arms, money, and volunteers. This support alarmed other national leaders who feared a violent Islamic fundamentalist state might be developing in Europe, one similar to that of Iran.

The Croats, still wanting their own independence, organized the Bosnian Croat army. In the spring of 1993, they began their own program of ethnic cleansing against Bosnian Muslims. A three-sided war now existed between Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims, causing much confusion. The Bosnian government under Izetbegovic controlled about 25 percent of the country. The West still refused to come to Bosnia's defense since some contended the fighting was a legal civil war and not international war crimes.

By mid-1993, Izetbegovic was seeking a peace settlement that would maintain one single central government, but leave Bosnia divided into three ethnic territories. The idea was much like the agreement he had rejected the previous year. Bosnian Muslims also began calling themselves Bosniaks in September 1993, to downplay the Muslim association.

International assistance arrives

In February 1994, the United States pressured Croatia to stop its attacks of Bosnia. The Bosnian Croats then joined forces with the Bosniaks against the Bosnian Serbs. In addition, the Western international community finally began providing military support through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) organization. NATO is a military defense alliance established in April 1949 among Western European and North American nations. NATO planes began sporadic bombings of Serbian forces. They also enforced a no-fly zone over Bosnia that was designed to keep Serbian planes from bombing Bosnian targets. Military supplies began arriving. Croatia began supplying arms to the Bosnian Croat forces, and Izetbegovic was receiving military supplies from Iran. Throughout this time, Izetbegovic remained dependent on outside humanitarian relief and secret arms shipments.

By August 1995, word of the Srebrenica Massacre atrocities had gotten out to the world. Serbian special forces had murdered over eight thousand Bosniak men within only a few days in July 1995. Srebrenica was a town inhabited by Bosnian Muslims that divided surrounding areas primarily inhabited by Bosnian Serbs. The Serbs decided to get rid of all Bosniaks living in Srebrenica and by early 1993 Serbian forces had isolated Srebrenica from other Bosnian Muslim areas. With its population running out of food, medicine, and water, the United Nations sent a small contingent of troops to help establish peace and get supplies to Srebrenica. However, by 1995 citizens were starving to death and in early July Serbian special forces moved into Srebrenica. As the group of lightly armed UN troops stood aside, the Serbs began the mass killings of the Bosnian Muslims. Endless truckloads of Bosniak males were taken from Srebrenica to killing sites in the country for execution. They were often bound and shot with automatic rifles before bulldozers pushed the bodies into mass graves with some wounded buried alive.

In reaction, NATO stepped up its bombing of Bosnian Serb positions. Croatian and Bosniak forces were then able to regain lost territory. The country was left roughly split into two parts, one controlled by the Serbs and the other by the Croats and Bosniaks.

Dayton Accord

With the country in ruins and fighting dragging on, Izetbegovic and other political and ethnic leaders of the region gathered to negotiate a ceasefire agreement. Since 1991, around 5 percent of the Bosnian population had been killed. Half of the population was now refugees (people who flee in search of protection or shelter). Very few areas in Bosnia remained ethnically mixed. The leaders came to the United States at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. It was the fourth effort to end hostilities since 1992. The talks at Dayton were difficult and lasted three long weeks. Finally, an agreement was reached in November 1995. It was formally signed later in Paris, France, in December.

Known as the Dayton Accord, the agreement kept Bosnia as a single country but divided it approximately in half, into the Serbian Republic and the Croat-Muslim Federation. Izetbegovic, representing the Bosnian government, was reluctant to sign and recognize a Serbian region. He still preferred a unified multi-ethnic Bosnia. However, through the Accord, he was able to keep Bosnia as a single country.

The new Bosnian presidency was to be shared by three people, each representing the three major ethnic groups of the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. Public elections were held in September 1996 to choose the three leaders. Each ethnic population selected the same person who had led them in war the previous years. This meant Izetbegovic was elected to represent the Muslims. He was also selected as the leader of the committee of three. They had limited powers in the two regions under the new weakened central government. The Dayton Accord also called for sixty thousand peacekeeping NATO troops and a return of refugees to their homes. That same year, the United States began providing assistance to Bosnia, but only after Izetbegovic had cut ties with Muslim assistance, as demanded by the United States. Though peace had arrived, piecing the country back together would be a long, difficult process as it slowly gained back its political functions from the United Nations-appointed administrators one by one, such as the court system.


In August 1999, the New York Times published a report claiming that $1 billion of Bosnian public funds had been stolen by the leaders of the region. Izetbegovic denied the corruption charges. In June 2000, Izetbegovic announced his retirement of public life, claiming age and health as reasons for leaving. He left office in October of that year at seventy-four years of age.

Considered a hero by many, Izetbegovic remained popular with Bosnians. He was often referred to by the nickname "Grandpa." Others, particularly in the West, were more critical of his years as a leader. They considered him a supporter of radical Muslim fundamentalism and were relieved to see him step down. He was not a strong supporter of Western-style democracies. However, in comparison to other ethnic leaders in the former Yugoslav region during his time—such as Milosevic—Izetbegovic was politically moderate. He promoted a nationalism that included strong ethnic and religious affiliations. During the war crimes trials, Bosnian Serbs and Croats made accusations of genocide against Izetbegovic. However, no indictments ever resulted because of the lack of sufficient evidence.

Izetbegovic maintained limited involvement in politics and provided public support to his former political party after retirement. This support helped the party rebound in the 2002 elections. In October 2003, Izetbegovic died from injuries suffered from a fall he had in his home. His injury was complicated by advanced heart disease.

For More Information


Bennett, Christopher. Yugoslavia's Bloody Collapse: Causes, Course and Consequences. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

Izetbegovic, Alija. Islam Between East and West. Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1984.

Kaplan, Robert. Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History. New York: Picador, 2005.

Malcolm, Noel. Bosnia: A Short History. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

Rieff, David. Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Silber, Laura, and Allan Little. Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Woodward, Susan L. Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution After the Cold War. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1995.


"International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia." United Nations. http://www.un.org/icty/ (accessed on December 11, 2006).