Alija Izetbegovic’s Biography

Alija Izetbegovic – The first democratically elected President of the Presidency of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina

1925 (Bosanski Samac) – 2003 (Sarajevo)

Profession: Lawyer / Wife: Halida Repovac. Three children: two daughters and a son / As a member of the ‘Young Muslims’ movement sentenced to 3 years in prison (1946 – 1949) / Sarajevo First Grammar School for Boys, Agronomy Studies (3 years), Law Degree (1956), Bar Exam / During studies led the construction site of the Perucica Hydro Power Plant in Montenegro (1952 – 1959) / Worked as a lawyer in the civil engineering companies, Put, IPSA, Consulting / In 1983 was sentenced to 14 years in prison in a staged political trial against Muslim intellectuals. After the appeal, the sentence was reduced to 12, then to 9 years / Released from prison on 25 November 1988. / Founder and the first President of SDA – Party of Democratic Action (May 1990) / Elected President of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidency after the first free elections in November 1990 / Organized and led the country’s defense during the 1992-1995 aggression / He retired from the president role in October 2000.

Alija Izetbegovic was born on 8 August 1925 in Bosanski Samac in a reputable bey family. Two years after Alija’s birth, his father Mustafa, a tradesman by profession, decided to move to Sarajevo with his nine-member family. He had two sons from a previous marriage and three daughters and two sons from his marriage to Alija’s mother Hiba. Alija was their fifth child.

Izetbegovic attended Sarajevo First Grammar School for Boys, and even then, he began to face the dilemmas of the “social justice and injustice” on one hand, and faith in God on the other. He read a lot, and the literary and philosophical works he read in the final years of grammar school played an important role in his education. In literature, these were Dostoyevsky’s novels and in philosophy, The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler and Creative Evolution by Henri Bergson. Yet, after a period of youthful dilemmas and wanderings, he returned to the “new-found faith” that he never lost again.

Alija Izetbegović in his youth
(source: family archive)

Izetbegovic graduated in 1943. At that time Sarajevo was under occupation by the Ustasha, so he had to hide for the whole 1944 to avoid mobilization by the Ustasha regime. During that time, he met Halida Repovac, his future wife, whose two brothers (Bakir and Muhamed Repovac) would be killed as members of the resistance movement.

During the war, Alija Izetbegovic was engaged in the humanitarian work, assisting exiled civilians within the Young Muslims movement, where he tried to find the articulation of his own political views. Islam, as well as anti-fascism and anti-communism, determined the general orientation of this movement.

After the war, the newly established communist government saw danger in the movement and the first arrests began in 1946. Among those who were arrested was Alija Izetbegovic, who was serving his military service in the Yugoslav Army at the time, so he was tried before the military court: he was given a three-year prison sentence.

Shortly after leaving prison in 1949, Izetbegovic, although more interested in law, enrolled in the agronomy studies and started a family. For the next ten years, he worked on construction sites, mostly in Montenegro where he managed the construction of the “Perucica” Hydro Power Plant near Nikšić for seven years. He studied and supported his family at the same time. He left Agronomy on the third year and enrolled in Law studies where he graduated within two years, in 1956. In the meantime, he had three children – two daughters and a son.

As a lawyer, Izetbegovic continued to work in the construction sector (NISKOGRADNJA, PUT, IPSA, CONSULTING). He passed the bar exam but did not practice law professionally. In a wide range of interests – from following space programs, political events in the world and the country, the development of science and technology, to learning foreign languages, but also hobbies such as chess – Islam and the state of the Muslim nations remained a focus of Izetbegovic’s attention. He also wrote and published (under the pseudonym L.S.B. – composed of the initial letters of the names of his daughters and son), several articles on that particular subject (later compiled under the title “Problems of Islamic Revival”), and in 1969 he made a draft of the “Islamic Declaration”, which he completed and released in 1970. This small text (about 40 pages,) relating to the Muslim world “from Morocco to Indonesia” aroused quite a lot of interest only after the “Sarajevo Trial” in 1983. Although the prosecution did not offer any valid evidence, Izetbegovic was convicted of the so-called “Islamic fundamentalism” and “association to overthrow the constitutional order”.

Izetbegovic wrote the important parts of his second book (“Islam between East and West”) even before his first imprisonment in 1946. When arrested, his sister Arza hid and preserved the manuscript. Later, Izetbegovic worked intensively on this manuscript and published a longer fragment on religion and art in 1971 in the Belgrade-based magazine “Kultura”, a thematic issue devoted to religion which was temporarily banned because of a text on Marxism by Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdzhayev.

Ten years later, he sent the complete manuscript of the book “Islam between East and West” to his friend in Canada. A few months later, in March 1983, Izetbegovic was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison during a staged trial in August of the same year. Along with him, 12 other Muslim intellectuals were convicted of the “association for the purpose of overthrowing the constitutional order” and “verbal delict”. Many didn’t even know each other.

Alija Izetbegović with his family
(source: family archive)

The book “Islam between East and West” was published in English in the United States in 1984 and in Bosnian in Belgrade in 1988, while Izetbegovic was still in prison. In the book, which has been translated into at least nine languages, the author deals with Islam and its place in the modern world, while opening up a series of topics and questions regarding mankind in general. Although the prosecution used the text of the “Islamic Declaration” in the staged trial against Izetbegovic, he believed that, in fact, the book “Islam between East and West” was the reason for his arrest.

During his second term in prison, Izetbegovic began writing down notes. They were reflections on life and destiny, religion and politics, the read works and their authors. At the end, there were thirteen small A5 notebooks, which Izetbegovic edited and published in 1999 under the title “My Escape to Freedom”.

In prison, Izetbegovic continued his struggle to reduce his sentence. He wrote to the Federal Court of the SFRY (Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), pointing to the illegality of the court process. Following the appeal, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina symbolically reduced the sentence from 14 to 12 years in prison; the Federal Court of SFRY reversed the verdict and reduced it to a ‘verbal delict’, for which he was sentenced to nine years. Shortly after, the Criminal Law provision on ‘verbal delict’ was repealed. Izetbegovic stayed in prison for five years and eight months and was finally released on 25 November 1988.

On the way to the polling station during the first democratic elections in 1990

Two years after his release from prison, in May 1990, Izetbegovic founded the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) with a group of like-minded people. The Party’s objectives envisaged the affirmation of the universal values of freedom, democracy, equality and human rights, including market economy and positive functions of a welfare state. At the founding assembly, Izetbegovic was elected President of the Party. The founding document bore the mark of his authorship, emphasizing the commitment to democracy – government by the people, regulated by the rule of just laws.

In the first democratic elections on 18 November 1990, the SDA won a convincing victory: out of 240 seats in the Assembly of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, SDA won 86 seats, and in the seven-member Presidency, three were SDA candidates. Izetbegovic was elected President of the Presidency of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the time of severe economic and political crisis in Yugoslavia. Over the next year, as a representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he participated in the meetings of the ‘Six’ (presidents of 6 SFRY republics) in an effort to find a framework for the survival of Yugoslavia. Together with Kiro Gligorov, the Macedonian President, he offered the platform for a reformed Yugoslavia, which didn’t receive the necessary support from the others.

On 17 June 1991, a brief war broke out in Slovenia, marking the beginning of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the aggression of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) against republics that had declared independence. Izetbegovic’s view was that B&H would not remain in Yugoslavia without Slovenia and Croatia, because it would no longer be Yugoslavia but Greater Serbia. He publicly opposed the mobilization of Bosnian-Herzegovinian youth for the war against Croatia, which was decided by the Presidency at the time. In addition to his party, he had the support of a majority of the civilian-provenance intellectuals in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Retreating from Slovenia and parts of Croatia, the JNA, which was becoming increasingly less of the Yugoslav Army and increasingly more of the Serbian army, began accumulating forces and weapons in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Izetbegovic intensively participates in the negotiations and diplomatic activities, in an effort to end the war and preserve peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina and to protect the legality and legitimacy of the state institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In the circumstances where JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army) recklessly defined itself as a Serbian army and fundamentally threatened the original institutions of the national defense of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the SDA under Izetbegovic’s leadership decided to establish a National Defense Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which would later form the Patriotic League, the first military formation formed for the defense of B&H.

On 14 January 1992, the Assembly of Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina passed a Resolution on Sovereignty, which was challenged by the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) as the majority political party of the Serb people in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A day later, the European Union recognized the independence of Slovenia and Croatia and conditioned the recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina by holding a referendum (decision by the Badinter Commission of the EC).

The referendum was held on 29 February and 1 March 1992. Around 64 percent of citizens turned up, out of which 99 percent voted for an independent Bosnia and Herzegovina. On that basis, the international recognition and admission of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the United Nations ensued on 22 May 1992.

Following a release of the results, the first attacks by Serb paramilitary groups on the non-Serb population began, and after the European Community recognized B&H’s independence on 6 April 1992, the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) launched a brutal aggression across the country. Izetbegovic was 67 at the time, facing new major challenges and the most difficult time in his life.

During the four-year war, Izetbegovic’s life was in danger at all times. The Presidency building, where he regularly came to work every day, was shelled throughout the siege of Sarajevo. Izetbegovic frequently ventured into free territories throughout the country and visited units of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The B-H Assembly building on fire during the shelling of Sarajevo in siege in 1992
(author: Mikhail Evstafiev)

As the President of the Presidency of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he carried the burden and responsibility of the Commander in Chief. He insisted on a respect for the international conventions and international humanitarian law, and especially on the protection of civilians and cultural and religious sites. He continued to participate in the peace talks; despite all the military and political pressures and the arms embargo, he remained consistent regarding the principle of liberty and the commitment to ‘Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole country in which no one will be persecuted because of their religion, nation and political conviction’.

The US President Bill Clinton with President Alija Izetbegovic in Tuzla, 1997
(source: William J. Clinton Presidential Library)

Thanks to his principled views and the brave resistance of the Bosnian defenders, Bosnia and Herzegovina gained friends and support in both, the East and the West.

The war ended with the adoption of the “Framework Agreement for Peace in B&H” in Dayton (Ohio, USA) in November 1995. Richard Holbrooke, the creator of the agreement and the US diplomat, said that Bosnia and Herzegovina would not have survived had it not been for Alija Izetbegovic.

After signing the Agreement, Izetbegovic stated: “This is not a just peace, but it is more just than a continuation of the war. In the situation as it is, in the world as it is, a better peace could not be achieved.”

In the circumstances of unjust peace and devastated country, Izetbegovic continued to work intensively to alleviate the effects of war and devastation, to restore broken relationships and social life, to recover the political system and to establish an effective functioning of the state institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In February 1996, he suffered a heart attack. He recovered and continued to work for another 4 years. In the summer of 2000, he began to consider stepping down and on 15 October that year he withdrew from the B&H Presidency and from his position as the President. Summarizing his life, he wrote: “If I were offered to live again, I would refuse. But if I had to be born again, I would choose my life.”

He continued his political activities and work on the autobiographical book “Memories.” He assisted in resolving open issues of the internal relations and the international position of Bosnia and Herzegovina by acting with the power of political authority and the broadest international reputation he enjoyed. He was a respected participant in the epoch, a holder of high honors from the East and the West, for his contributions to democracy and a more just world. Almost all statesmen who came to Bosnia and Herzegovina sought to include a meeting with Izetbegovic in their protocol.

In the last days of his life, he was visited by many friends at the hospital, including prominent statesmen such as the former US President Bill Clinton and the then Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Alija Izetbegovic died on 19 October 2003.

Bosniaks of all ages, Bosnians of all religions, ethnic and party backgrounds, as well as admirers from all over the world, honored him at the funeral and the final farewell in the largest crowd ever assembled in Sarajevo and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

He was buried at the Shaheed Cemetery Kovaci in Sarajevo.

The funeral ceremony for Alija Izetbegović in Sarajevo in 2003
(source: Hayat TV)