The former Yugoslavia – independence and the fate of minorities – part four

TransConflict is pleased to present the fourth part of a chapter of “Confronting the Yugoslav controversies – a scholars’ initiative”, entitled “Independence and the Fate of Minorities (1991-1992).”

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Conflict Background


By Gale Stokes

In 1984 Izetbegović published a more thorough analysis, Islam Between East and West, although because of the hostility of the communist regime it had to be published initially in North America.[24] This later book was not a pamphlet designed to be spread underground to encourage believers, but an extended set of comments he had already begun as early as 1946. The book was divided into two parts. Part I dealt with secular issues indicated by chapter titles such as “Creation and Evolution,” “Culture and Civilization,” “The Phenomenon of Art,” and “Morality.” Part II concerned religion, especially how Islam mediated between the materialist view of the world and the religious view. Izetbegović argued that there are three basic kinds of world views: the religious, the materialistic, and Islam. The materialist asks how do I live, the answer to which evolves through history, whereas the religious point of view asks why do I live, the answer to which is eternal and does not evolve. That is, the religious truths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are as appropriate for human beings today as they were when they were created. In the West there is a separation between the religious and the secular. The strength of Islam, Izetbegović believed, is that it “is a synthesis, a ‘third road’ between the two poles that mark all that is human.”[25] In 1983, partially because of this manuscript, and partially because of a regime campaign against “clerico-nationalism and Pan Islam in Bosnia-Hercegovina,” Izetbegović was arrested again and sentenced to fourteen years of prison. He was released in 1988 after serving, as he puts it, two thousand and seventy five days.

During the more than five years Izetbegović spent in jail in the 1980s, he managed to write more than 3,500 aphorisms, comments, and observations, which were later published as Notes from Prison (the original title in Bosnian was Moj bijeg u slobodu). These comments, written fifteen years after the Islamic Declaration, show how much continuity his thought retained. Even though he speaks often in these notes about religion, about his book Islam Between East and West, and about Islam, the overwhelming source of his comments are Western authors, not only the classics, such as Rousseau, Nietzsche, and the like, but even such relatively obscure observers such as Bruno Bettleheim and Alvin Toffler. His remarks reveal a highly intellectualized mind and reinforce his strong interest in ethics, morality, and good sense. He is tolerant (“God forgive me if I am wrong, but I respect a good Christian more than a bad Muslim”) and continues to admire the work ethic to which he ascribes the success of capitalism (“At the foundation of all the progress and power of the West in the last five centuries is the cult of work”). He again cites the EC as the model of cooperation for the Islamic world, and, presumably, for Yugoslavia, and reiterates his distrust of nationalism (“The true patriot is not the one who puts his homeland above others, but the one who acts so that it would be worthy of that praise. More than glory, he cares about the dignity of his homeland”). In important ways Izetbegović was a conservative, opposed to abortion and in favor of limiting women to the home and the family. And he is Muslim; but as the body of work accumulated over his adult life demonstrates, he was not a fundamentalist in the way we have come to think of them today. Indeed, he opposes ideological solutions: “The perfect man is not our aim, the perfect society even less. All we want are normal people and normal society. God, save us from any ‘perfection.’”[26]

In 1994, when a German reporter characterized Izetbegović as a “Muslim in the European tradition of tolerance, open to the entire world,” he replied, “My tolerance is not European but Islamic in origin. If I am tolerant, I am that first as a Muslim, and only then as a European…I value Europe, but I think that it has far too high an opinion of itself.” But it was not his intention to create an Islamic Republic. As he put it early in 1994 in a speech to the board of the political party he headed, “To be quite clear, I don’t want an Islamic Republic, but I want Islam to survive in this part of the world, whether anybody likes it or not [pa kome pravo kome krivo]…We don’t want to be assimilated…We want to stay what we are, and we can say that with pride. We illustrate a European Islam here, a modern Islam…Just maybe it is our mission to show Islam in a new and genuine light.” In the Bosnia he hoped for, therefore “no one will be persecuted for their religion, nationality or political conviction. That will be our
fundamental law.”[27]

After Izetbegović became president of Bosnia in 1990, this body of work, especially the Islamic Declaration, became fodder for the Serbian propaganda mills. In the political struggles that preceded the outbreak of actual fighting in Bosnia, Bosnian Serbs in particular repeatedly used claims that Izetbegović was a fundamentalist Muslim bent on placing Serbs under Islamic jurisdiction. Serbian writers plucked sentences and phrases from the Islamic Declaration to “demonstrate” that Izetbegović was “Ayatollah Khomeyni’s right hand man,” and even, not too logically, that the Declaration was his Mein Kampf.[28] This campaign, however, smacked more of political mudslinging than of accuracy. Not that Izetbegović distanced himself from his Islamic views. Of the several factions that existed in the party he founded, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), Izetbegović led the more religiously oriented wing. This led one of the early members of the SDA, Adil Zulfikarpašić, to form his own, more secular party.[29] Also, Izetbegović did some foolish things that played directly into the hands of his Serbian opponents, such as visiting Turkey in July 1991, where he asked that Bosnia join the Organization of Islamic Countries.[30] Izetbegović often spoke of creating a civil society in Bosnia, but when he spoke to Muslim audiences abroad, he liked to stress “the need for the Muslim nation in Bosnia to have its own state,” which is just what the Serbian nationalists accused him of trying to do.[31] In 1993 he received the King Faisal Foundation award for services to Islam and in the next year he visited Mecca.[32] On the other hand, it was Izetbegović, along with Kiro Gligorov of Macedonia, who led an effort to create a reorganized Yugoslavia along the lines of a civil state. This effort to counter Slobodan Milošević’s drive to Serbianize Yugoslavia failed, but it did provide a marked contrast to the intense nationalism of both Serbian and Croatian leaders in 1990 and 1991.

‘Independence and the fate of minorities’ is a component of the larger Scholars’ Initiative ‘Confronting Yugoslav Controversies’ (Second Edition), extracts of which will be published on every Friday.


24) Alija Izetbegović, Islam Between East and West (Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1984).

25) Alija Izetbegović, Izetbegović of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Notes From Prison, 1983-1988 (Westport: Praeger, 2002), 106, describing his earlier ideas in Islam Between East and West.

26) During his stay in prison, Izetbegović numbered his notes consecutively, but in the published book he divided them into subjects for individual chapters so that the numbering is no longer consecutive. Therefore, I give citations for the above quotes, in the order in which they appear, with the page number followed by the item number
on that page. Izetbegović, Notes From Prison, 32/1040; 71/1203; 203/2293; 79/1631; 195/712; 194/241; and 201/2013.

27) Alija Izetbegović, Izetbegović: Odabrani govori, pisma, izjave, intervjui (Zagreb: Prvo Muslimansko Dioničko Društvo Zagreb, 1995), 170, 39, 89.

28) These charges are taken from a Serbian website:, accessed 29 October 2004, but no longer available.

29) In fact, “Bosnian Moslems [sic] typically report not considering religious affiliation a significant part of personal or collective identity.” Scott Atran, “Genesis of Suicide Terrorism,” in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004, ed. Steven Pinker (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 9.

30) Laura Silber and Allan Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (New York: Penguin, 1997), 213. Silber and Little are probably referring to The Organization of the Islamic Conference, of which Bosnia and Hercegovina became an Observer (i.e., not a full member) in 1994.

31) Burg and Shoup, The War in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 67.

32) Izetbegović, Izetbegović, 101. Thanks to Husnija Kamberović for comments at this

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