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

TransConflict is pleased to present the third 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

One of the most consistent claims Serbs in Bosnia used to justify their fear of Muslim domination was that the Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegović was a religious fundamentalist who sought to establish an Islamic dictatorship over Bosnia. All outside observers agree that this was a false charge, but because it had a good deal of resonance among Serbs, a closer look at Izetbegović’s views is warranted.[12]

Two years after Izetbegović was born in 1925, he and his family moved to Sarajevo, which remained his home until his death in 2003. Izetbegović attended the best gymnasium in Sarajevo and as a teenager during World War II he joined a group called Young Muslims. This organization of youthful enthusiasts could be compared to the Serbian Omladina of the nineteenth century, or to Mazzini’s Young Italy, both of which used the term “young” to mean that their nation, in this case Bosnian Muslims, was still at a formative stage but had a bright future. The group’s primary interest was the regeneration of Islam, and for this reason its members were strongly anticommunist. Izetbegović himself had been interested briefly in Marxism as a teenager, but he could not accept communism’s atheism. “A universe without God seemed to me unthinkable,” he said in his memoirs.[13] When the activities of the Young Muslims sparked a modest interest among young anticommunist Bosniaks at the end of the war, the new communist regime imprisoned several of the organization’s members, including Izetbegović. After his release, he studied agronomy for a while, eventually taking a degree in law and working for several years on construction projects in Montenegro.

The primary document on which Bosnian Serbs based their fears of Izetbegović was his Islamic Declaration, a programmatic statement about the regeneration of Islam that began to circulate among Bosnian Muslims in 1970. The Declaration, which fell within a tradition of liberal Islamic writing, sought a way for Muslims to recover from both the sterility into which Izetbegović felt Islamic education had fallen and the stagnation that he saw throughout the Islamic world. In the way of many religious reformers of all faiths, Izetbegović saw the purity of Islam sullied by “its discrepancy between word and deed; with its debauchery, filth, injustice and cowardice; with its monumental but empty mosques; with its large white turbans without ideals and courage; with a hypocritical Islamic phrase and religious pose; with this faith without faith.”[14] One of the reasons for this state of affairs, Izetbegović thought, was that progressives in Islamic states—Turkey, for example—had adopted many of the superficial ways of the developed world without understanding the essence of Western success. What was that essence? Not fashionable styles of living in a consumer society, but work: “diligence, persistence, knowledge, and responsibility.”[15] “The survival, strength, or weakness of Islamic societies is subject to the same laws of work and struggle as are other communities,” he wrote. “Miracles do not exist, except those created by work and knowledge.”[16] But work and knowledge would not be enough if they were not informed by Islam, Izetbegović argued. Only a moral regeneration through a return to the basic insights of Islam would restore dignity to Muslims. Despite his criticism of the Muslim progressives who copied from Europe, Izetbegović’s notion of dignity put him squarely in the twentieth century world, where the notion of honor, growing out of the hierarchical medieval standards, has been replaced by the notion of dignity, which emphasizes the worth of every individual.[17] His critics often called Izetbegović a fundamentalist, and in a sense he was. He wished to return to the sources of Islam.[18] But he was also a modernist who criticized authoritarian regimes, sought improvements in education, and advocated protection for the rights of minorities. Whatever else he sought, Izetbegović wanted his people, Bosnian Muslims, to be able to hold their heads high in a contemporary world into which they had not yet entered in an authentic way.

The Declaration was very much a document of its time, both in Islamic and European thought. In the Declaration, and indeed in his entire oeuvre, Izetbegović was following a common strand of modern Islamic thought, namely, how to reconcile the precepts of Islam with the challenges actual life presented in the modern world. In the 1950s, stung by the Israeli successes, many Muslim authors sought similar answers. For example, in Egypt Qustantin Zurayq wrote, “A progressive, dynamic mentality will never be stopped by a primitive, static mentality.”[19] Izetbegović’s writing, therefore, was consistent with the efforts of Muslims elsewhere to come to grips with modernity.

His work was also embedded in the milieu that produced antipoliticians elsewhere in Eastern Europe. In his moral and ethical precepts, Izetbegović was trying to think his way to an authentic reaction to the bureaucratized regime under which Bosnians and Yugoslavs lived. Despite the originality of its nationalities policies, the Yugoslav communist regime ruled over an authoritarian system that brooked little criticism. In his belief that this kind of regime actually deprived human beings of their true nature, Izetbegović agreed with the Praxis philosophers. “To reduce a man to the function of a producer and a consumer, even if every man is given his place in production and consumption, does not signal humanism but dehumanization,” he said in the mid-1980s. “To drill people to produce correct and disciplined citizens is likewise inhuman.” Writing within an entirely different discourse, the Praxis author Mihailo Marković said this in the mid-1970s: “The basic purpose of critical inquiry is the discovery of those
specific social institutions and structures which cripple human beings, arrest their development, and impose on them patterns of simple, easily predictable, dull, stereotyped behavior.”[20] Like the antipoliticians of the 1970s and 1980s in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and elsewhere, Izetbegović sought hope in internalizing an ethical and moral life. He did not seek to found a political movement that would seize power to implement its goals, thereby creating its own Bastille, as Adam Michnik put it. “Our prime means are personal example, books and words,” Izetbegović wrote.[21] Václav Havel argued that the power of the powerless lay in living in truth. Izetbegović agreed, albeit in the context of Islam. “Every form of power in the world begins as a moral truth…That is why a movement, which has Islamic order for its main goal, must before all be a moral movement.”[22]

Clearly Izetbegović sought an ethical and moral change in Islam. But did this imply domination over others? At first glance, yes. Much in the same way that many Christians believe that they have a moral duty to Christianize others, so Izetbegović believed that a harmonious world was possible only under Islam. But this did not mean imposing that faith on others or rejecting the best of Western inventions, especially science and the kind of cooperative interaction that created the European Economic Community. Nationalism, he believed as early as 1970, had “become a luxury, a thing too expensive for small and even medium-sized nations.” Instead, “the creation of the European Economic Community…constitutes the most constructive event in 20th century European history. And the establishment of this supranational structure was the first real victory of the European peoples over nationalism.”[23]

‘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.


12) There are perhaps a score of biographies of Slobodan Milošević, but I am not aware of a single full-scale biography of Izetbegović.

13) Alija Izetbegović, Sjećanja: autobiografski zapis (Sarajevo: TKD Šahinpašić, 2001), 23.

14) Alija Izetbegović, Islamic Declaration, 15. The copy I used is an English translation obtained from the Yale University library.

15) Ibid., 7.

16) Ibid., 36

17) On modernism conceived as the replacement of honor by dignity see Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism, ed. and intro. Amy Gutmann (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

18) “I have been attacked as a fundamentalist,” he said, “and in a certain sense I was—demanding a return to the sources” (Izetbegović, Sjećanja, 35).

19) Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939 (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), 354.

20) Alija Izetbegović, Islam Between East and West (Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1984), 38; and Mihailo Marković in Gale Stokes, ed. From Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 120. Marković later became a supporter of Milošević and even appeared at The Hague as a witness for Milošević’s defense.

21) Izetbegović, Declaration, 45.

22) Ibid., 43.

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