Alija Izetbegovic: Islamic Hero of the Western World

by Diana Johnstone


Analysis of the books:

Izetbegovic, Alija, Islamic Declaration, 1970.

Izetbegovic, Alija, Islam Between East and West, American Trust Publications, Plainfield, Indiana, 1984; third edition, 1993, 302 pages.


(From: Dialogue, Paris, 26: 33-47, 1998)

Of the local figures who emerged from the wreckage of the former Yugoslavia, the President of Bosnia Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegovic, is by far the most respected in the world outside, and notably in the United States (1). While younger men like Haris Silajdzic and Mohamed Sacirbey defended his government to the world with consummate skill and in perfect English, Izetbegovic was a largely silent figure on television screens, the elder statesman whose serious mein expressed both worry and serenity, reflecting the martyrdom of his people. The respect accorded him has rarely taken the form of interest in the ideas on which he based his Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the Muslim political movement in control of the Sarajevo government. In Europe and America, Izetbegovic is seen much more as a symbol than as a political leader with a particular program.

The war in Bosnia Herzegovina aroused far more passion in the West than the earlier war in Croatia because it brought to the television screens the revelation of a European Islam that offered the ideal model for solving a current problem of vital importance in countries such as France: assimilation of Muslim immigrant populations. Sarajevo was discovered as a multicultural paradise, an oasis of civilization, populated mainly by gentle blue eyed Muslims, practicing musical instruments and expressing sentiments of tolerance for their neighbors of other religions. The “lukewarm” Islam seen in Sarajevo seemed totally suitable for integration into any European country.

The fact that Bosnia seemed to offer a potential solution to Western Europe’s own “Muslim problem” helps explain the vehement hostility that arose against the Bosnian Serbs, whose utterly peculiar rustic nationalism (the same, commentators noted, that had triggered the carnage of World War I) imbued with religious bigotry was held responsible for an unprovoked brutal assault on this exemplary society. Any “ethnic cleansing” would be outrageous, but here the crime was doubly reprehensible: a “genocide” bent on wiping out Europe’s best model of a multi ethnic society including Muslims.

This interpretation of events helps explain the extreme passion aroused, expressed in the slogan, “Europe lives or dies in Sarajevo”.  Especially on the liberal left, many intellectuals were, and largely remain, convinced that multicultural Sarajevo represented a test case for the survival of European integration in the broadest sense (2).

Western media, not least those newspapers and television channels (CNN, Arte) devoting the most coverage to the conflict, readily identified idealized Sarajevo with the Bosnian Muslims, and the Islam of Western dreams with the person of Alija Izetbegovic. Any suggestion that Mr. Izetbegovic might be an “Islamic fundamentalist” could only be dismissed with total incredulity and outrage as blatant Serb propaganda, invented to justify aggression and ethnic cleansing. How could the leader of the Bosnian Muslims be an “Islamic fundamentalist” when the Bosnian Muslims were obviously such a model of modern tolerance?

Acceptance of Izetbegovic as the personification of multi ethnic Bosnia Herzegovina obscured the fact that the President not only did not represent the population of Bosnia Herzegovina in all its variety, he did not even represent all the Muslims (3).

Politics and Religion

That Izetbegovic could not be considered the uncontested leader of a unanimous Muslim community, much less of “multi ethnic Bosnia”, is clear from his own published writings, the “Islamic Declaration”, first distributed in 1970 and republished twenty years later, and Islam Between East and West, first published in the United States in 1984.
The “Islamic Declaration” was a manifesto, a sort of “what is to be done?” addressed to Bosnian Muslims discontented with their condition and status. For Izetbegovic, it is clear that Muslims cannot be satisfied in a secular order. “Islamic society without an Islamic government is incomplete and impotent... A Muslim, in general, does not exist as an individual. live and exist as a Muslim, he must create an environment, a community, a social order. ... History does not know of a single truly Islamic movement which was not simultaneously a political movement” (4).

The 1970 Islamic Declaration was written in the context of a global awakening of the Muslim world, “made up of 700 million people possessing enormous natural resources and occupying a geographical area of the first importance”. “The time of passivity and peace is gone forever...”  The time had come to show the way to “the realization of Islam in all fields of private life of the individual, in the family and in society, by rebirth of Islamic religious thinking and creation of an Islamic community from Morocco to Indonesia.”

Izetbegovic singled out two currents within the Muslim community which stood in the way of the political renewal of Islam: the “conservatives” on the one hand and the “modernists” on the other.

The “conservatives” were identified with “hodjas and shayks” who by confining Islam to a “religion”, limited to spiritual concerns, kept it  in the hands of the clergy, neglecting its necessary political role in the world, and accommodating a secular regime incompatible with fully developed Islamic life. “More closed to science and more open to mysticism”, the “hodjas and shayks” criticized by Izetbegovic are evidently linked to the Sufi tradition of mystical Islam, which in some times and places (notably the Caucasus region and Algeria in the nineteenth century) has been the center of particularly violent resistance to the West, but which took quite tame forms in the western territories of the former Ottoman empire.

As for the “modernists”, they are considered by Izetbegovic to be a veritable disaster for Islam throughout the Muslim world. They are often influential in public life, but as they also consider Islam merely a religion that need not or cannot order the external world, they too accommodate secularism and prevent Islam from exerting its proper role in ordering all aspects of life. The “Islamic Declaration” very explicitly rejects the intellectual currents which, notably in Arab countries, have attempted to build modern secular nation states on the Western model of separation between government and religion. For Muslims, Izetbegovic declares, secularism and nationalism are purely negative.

He illustrates this with the example of Turkey, a Muslim country ruined, in his view, by secularism and nationalism. “Turkey as an Islamic country ruled the world. Turkey as a copy of Europe is a third rate country like a hundred others around the world.”

What Izetbegovic has to say about Turkey is particularly significant, inasmuch as he is himself an heir to a Muslim elite in the Balkans which consistently opposed efforts by Istanbul to reform the Ottoman Empire in ways that would diminish the privileges traditionally monopolized by Muslims. (Under Ottoman rule, only Muslims had the right to own land, to occupy administrative posts, to enter town on horseback, or to wear green, among other things.)  When Ottoman power was finally driven out of the Balkans by the Serb, Bulgarian and Greek national liberation movements, all Orthodox Christians, a certain number of south Slav Muslims emigrated to Turkey where even today they may constitute a lobby nostalgic for the good old days, as well as a potential source of support for the growing Islamic political restoration in Turkey itself.

The country which Izetbegovic singled out in his “Declaration” as an example and inspiration, as “our great hope”, is Pakistan. “Pakistan constitutes the rehearsal for introduction of Islamic order in contemporary conditions and at the present level of development.” These words were written before the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which brought a new source of financial backing to Izetbegovic’s project of Islamic revival in Bosnia Herzegovina. For secular society, however, Pakistan as example is no more reassuring, considering its ongoing backing of armed Islamic groups in neighboring countries, notably Afghanistan (5).

Izetbegovic’s constant message is that the Koran calls for unification of religious faith and politics. There can be no “separation of church and state”    a Christian division totally unacceptable to Muslims. “The first and most important” conclusion to be drawn from the Koran is “the impossibility of any connection between Islam and other non Islamic systems. There is neither peace nor coexistence between the ‘Islamic religion’ and non Islamic social and political institutions.”

“Having the right to govern its own world, Islam clearly excludes the right and possibility of putting a foreign ideology into practice on its territory. There is thus no principle of secular government and the State must express and support the moral principles of religion.”

Izetbegovic’s immediate concern in writing the 1970 “Islamic Declaration” was not in combatting the Communist regime in Yugoslavia, which by recognizing a “Muslim nationality” had greatly facilitated the revival of a Muslim consciousness and community. Rather, he was calling for an awakening of an Islamic consciousness as the first necessary step toward eventual restoration of international Islamic unity and Islamic government wherever Muslims would constitute a majority. This is stated quite clearly.

“Emphasis on giving priority to religious and moral renewal doesn’t mean that Islamic order can be realized without Islamic government... This position means that we don’t start with the conquest of power, but by the conquest of men, and that Islamic regeneration is first of all an upheaval in the field of education, and only afterwards in the political field. We must be preachers first and soldiers later.”

At what moment will force accompany these educational means? “The choice of this moment is always a precise question and depends on a number of factors. One can however establish a general rule: the Islamic movement can and must take power as soon as it is normally and numerically strong enough not only to destroy the existing non Islamic government, but also to construct a new Islamic government. ... Acting too soon is as dangerous as acting too late! Seizing power... without adequate moral and psychological preparation and the indispensable minimum of strong and well trained cadre means making a coup d’Etat, not an Islamic revolution...” (Earlier, he specifies that: “An Islamic regime can be achieved only in countries where Muslims are a majority.”)

The “overthrow of the state” was perhaps nearly as distant and hypothetical for Izetbegovic in Yugoslavia in 1970 as it was for Communist Parties in the non Communist West in the mid 20th century. The precipitation with which Izetbegovic has in fact become President of a largely Muslim and potentially Islamic state is clearly due to a series of events that even a religious visionary is most unlikely to have foreseen in 1970 or even in 1983    although by then, the Islamic Revolution in Iran had opened new prospects. Notably, a sort of competition between Teheran and Saudi Arabia has provided Islamic movements everywhere with a lucrative rivalry for influence between oil rich sponsors. Izetbegovic’s party has been notably successful in winning important political and material support from all Muslim countries regardless of rivalries between them.

Islam as Political Synthesis of a Dualistic World

Islam Between East and West was published first in English in the United States in 1984, at a time when Izetbegovic was in jail in Yugoslavia for “counter revolutionary” activities. The book could not be published in Bosnia Herzegovina until after he was released in a general amnesty in 1988.

The book is a lengthy attempt to elaborate the ideological underpinnings of the central political argument of the “Islamic Declaration”. It is thus part of the intellectual preparation which Izetbegovic considered necessary before proceeding to the next step of establishing Islamic government.

All of Izetbegovic’s thinking centers on a single simple formula: Islam is the only synthesis capable of unifying mankind’s essentially dualistic existence.

“There are only three integral views of the world: the religious, the materialistic, and the Islamic. They reflect three elemental possibilities (conscience, nature, and man), each of them manifesting itself as Christianity, materialism, and Islam. All ideologies ... can be reduced to one of these three” (p.xxv).

The book proceeds to make these reductions. The method employed is to touch briefly on virtually every subject imaginable, citing a wide range of celebrated or obscure facts and authors, usually out of any clear context, in order to illustrate this simple hypothesis. Thus assertion takes the place of logical argument, repetition the place of definition. Izetbegovic is not at all an analytical thinker, but a classifier. His approach is to attempt to fit everything    all philosophy and science, notably    into his three preconceived categories.

These categories are summarized in the book’s appendix as the “table of the opposites”, in three columns representing the “religious”, the “materialistic” and the “Islamic” views of the world. The “Islamic” is the synthesis of the other two, which unites them, as it unites the dual aspects of man’s nature. “Man” as a whole thus belongs in the “Islamic” category.


Materialistic Religious Islamic
Matter Spirit Man
Materialism Religion (Islam/Man)
Body Soul (Islam/Man)
Science Christianity (Islam/Man)
Nature Art (Islam/Man)
Intelligence Morality (Islam/Man)
Society Community (Islam/Man)
Power Morals Law Shari’ah
Violence Non violence Justice Jihad
Civitas Solis Civitas Dei Caliphate
   etc., etc.

Izetbegovic devotes many pages to expressing his regard for science and attempting to recount what he takes for those of its findings that seem to support his thesis. A golden age of scientific knowledge is one of the benefits he foresees from Islamic renewal. Nevertheless, his own purely ideological approach is light years away from a modern scientific method.

Arbitrarily, Izetbegovic proclaims that “life is dual”. Arbitrarily, he proclaims that only Islam overcomes this dualism. “Man experiences the world dualistically, but monism is in the essence of all human thinking.” Mere “religion”, by clinging to one side of the dichotomy, cannot satisfy man’s need for “monism”. He is saved because “Islam cannot be classified as a religion. Islam is more than a religion for it embraces life.” This is a totalizing, one might say implicitly totalitarian, claim. “There is only one Islam, but like man, it has both soul and body” (op.cit.,p.xxxi). By equating “Islam” with “man”, Izetbegovic appropriates “humanism” for Islam, giving the term an exclusive theological meaning very far from common acceptance. “Atheistic humanism is a contradiction because if there is no God, then there is no man either” (p.39). “Everything must serve man, and man must serve God only. This is the ultimate meaning of humanism” (p.40). “Man cannot be a Christian” because he cannot be a perfectly spiritual being, and the Koran says that “God does not charge anyone with a burden he cannot carry” (p.227). In contrast, Islam “suits man because it recognizes the duality of his nature. .. That is why man is the most obvious argument of Islam.” (p.228)

This dualism recalls the two adversaries to Islamic renewal within the Muslim community cited in the “Islamic Declaration”. The “conservatives” are on the “spiritual” or “religious” side of the dichotomy, while the “progressives” are on the “materialistic” side. Both thereby fail to realize Islam in its fullness.

A passage in the chapter on “Drama and Utopia” (p.161) well illustrates Izetbegovic’s rigorous dualism. “Does evil come from inside, from the dark depths of the human soul, or does it come from outside, from the objective conditions of human life? This question divides all people into two large groups: believers and materialists. For believers all evil and good is in man. ... To assert that evil is outside, that a man is evil because the conditions in which he lives are bad, that changes in these conditions would bring changes in man, to insist that man is a result of outside circumstances, is from the religious point of view the most godless and the most inhuman idea which has ever appeared in the human mind. Such an opinion degrades man to a thing, to a helpless executor of outside, mechanical, unconscious forces. Evil is in man versus evil is in the social environment. These are two mutually exclusive statements.”


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