to Rest a Mythical Autocrat
by Nebojsa Malic
in the morning of October 19, Alija Izetbegovic passed
away in a Sarajevo hospital, marking the end of an era
for Bosnia. The treatment of his death spoke volumes about
his actions in life. While Muslims mourned the "father of
the nation" and Western press and leaders sang him praises,
over half of Bosnia's population – Croats and Serbs – either
continued to ignore
him, or rejoiced at the word of his passing.
sentiments are understandable. Izetbegovic had a major impact
on all their lives and destinies, and the manner in which
this was the case dictates to a large extent the feeling about
him. But beneath the paeans and scoffs persists a myth of
an Izetbegovic who never was – a public relations construct
for political consumption, markedly different from the old
man who shed his mortal coil Sunday morning.
Izetbegovic as a "hero of Muslim resistance…who led his country
to independence," who "won worldwide sympathy by running the
government from sandbagged buildings during the … siege of
Sarajevo," and "walked to his office through the bombardment…
under constant threat from [Serb] artillery and sniper attacks."
Bosnia became only a ruined protectorate, and Izetbegovic's
alleged heroics were a media ploy. In reality, Izetbegovic
ordered thousands of Sarajevo residents to work and live under
constant threat, allowing only those with special government
permits to leave the city, while his family was sent to safety
and he himself retreated into a bunker. If the city was the
Serbs' hostage, its residents were Izetbegovic's.
obituary makes Izetbegovic
into a victim of Communist repression (which he may have been)
and an activist for religious freedom (which he was not).
His 1983 trial may have been a farce, but he was a member
of a Muslim youth organization that recruited for the Waffen
SS during World War Two, and he did write the "Islamic
Declaration" in 1970, in which he argued that:
exhaustive definition of the Islamic Order is: the unity of
religion and law, education and force, ideals and interests,
spiritual society and State…the Muslim does not exist at all
as an independent individual… […] It is not in fact possible
for there to be any peace or coexistence between 'the Islamic
Religion' and non-Islamic social and political institutions."
is as explicit as Islamic fundamentalism gets. Oh, there is
also the matter of Muslim soldiers killed in the Bosnian War
being called shahaad, "martyr for the faith," indicating
theirs was a Muslim holy war (jihad), not a struggle
for some fictitious multi-ethnic utopia. Izetbegovic requested
to be buried at the main shahaad cemetery in Sarajevo,
next to the holy warriors who died for his vision.
most obituaries dismiss
the charge of fundamentalism as something maliciously concocted
by Serbs and Croats, who were "sharpening their knives, preparing
to carve up Bosnia" (BBC) even as Izetbegovic
"worked desperately to preserve [Yugoslavia]" – another bit
of contemporary fiction.
paints Izetbegovic as a peacemaker: "Many observers say Izetbegovic
never wanted war as the price of Bosnia's independence."
here is Izetbegovic, on February 7, 1991: "I would sacrifice
peace for a sovereign Bosnia-Herzegovina… but for that peace
in Bosnia-Herzegovina I would not sacrifice sovereignty."
(quoted in Richard Holbrooke, To
End A War, Chapter 2, p. 32)
a self-confessed and proven admirer of Izetbegovic and his
cause, offers several descriptions of Izetbegovic's prevarication
that frustrated peace efforts. He would know; he and his
associates bent over backwards negotiating on Izetbegovic's
behalf at Dayton, while "Grandpa" (as some of his people called him) constantly
frustrated their efforts by rejecting painfully crafted compromises
and always asking for more.
British Independent went so far as to claim
that Izetbegovic's "moment of triumph" came at the signing
of the Dayton Agreement, which "confirmed the independence
and the multi-ethnic character of Bosnia-Herzegovina, populated
by Muslims, Serbs and Croats." Dayton did no such thing, and
Izetbegovic is reported
to have signed the agreement in total silence. It was not
a triumph, but a defeat.
Man Who Never Was
distortions of reality came from Imperial flunkies, like EU's
foreign policy czar Javier Solana, who called Izetbegovic
"a very courageous leader for his people" who "played an important
role in ending the war in his country." Solana's successor
as NATO's Secretary-General, the boorish George Robertson,
claimed Izetbegovic "worked hard to preserve the unity and
independence of [Bosnia]." France's President Jacques Chirac
praised the "political courage he demonstrated in contributing
to national reconciliation." (AFP)
And the Iranian government praised Izetbegovic
for "serious attempts to defend… the unity among the residents
and various ethnic races" of Bosnia.
Izetbegovic never did any of these things – indeed, he did
the exact opposite.
it is the maddening New York Times obituary
where the "media Izetbegovic" occludes the real man the most.
Penned by David Binder, it offers tantalizing glimpses of
truth behind the veils of politically correct drivel aimed
to portray Izetbegovic as a tortured, honest, peace-loving,
spiritual man who fought for freedom by any means necessary,
betrayed by Western powers.
was hardly honest. According to a famous statement of his,
he thought "one thing in the morning, and something else in
the afternoon." He had support of Western governments, if
not always to the extent he wanted. His relations with Islamic
countries were voluntary and eagerly pursued, not forced by
circumstances. He fought for power, not freedom; the "Islamic
Declaration" makes it clear individual freedom meant nothing
to him. To him, peace meant not the absence of violence, but
primacy of his violence over that of others. And his
faith, admired by people who have abandoned their own, served
to justify in his mind everything he'd said and done.
Izetbegovic was a complex man: intelligent, cunning, calculated
and driven, yet projecting the image of a simpleton which
led both his allies and his enemies to gravely underestimate
him. Journalists and diplomats genuinely believed his professed
reverence for democracy, human rights and multi-ethnic multi-culturalism,
even as all evidence indicated it was feigned.
was a man of strong convictions, and an even stronger desire
to force them upon others. Both the "Islamic Declaration"
and Islam between the East and the West, his 1970 pamphlet
and 1980 book, reveal a philosophical view of Islam
not as a relationship between individuals and the divine,
but as a system in which society, religion and state become
one. No equality, or peaceful coexistence, was possible for
non-believers in such a system, and he said as much. Izetbegovic's
vision of Bosnia was not a multi-ethnic democracy, but a multi-caste
hierarchy of the kind that existed under the Ottoman Empire,
the memories of which were still fresh at his birth in 1925.
as Islam dictated Izetbegovic's philosophy, so did his World
War Two experience shape his political relations with Bosnia's
Christian majority, the Serbs and Croats. Between 1941 and
1945, Bosnia was part of the "Independent State of Croatia,"
in which Serbs were being persecuted as fiercely
as Jews in the Nazi Reich, among others by the Muslim Waffen
SS and irregulars, whom Izetbegovic supported.
Alija Izetbegovic was an autocrat. He muscled out the actual
founders of the SDA party before the 1990 election. After
the vote, he sidelined the most popular Muslim politician
– Fikret Abdic – to become the chairman of the executive Presidium,
a function later dubbed the "President of Bosnia." He used
people with ease, purging them when they became too ambitious
or too independent. Those who ended up disgraced, beaten or
scarred were lucky. Several others were assassinated or executed.
power was absolute. Izetbegovic was the Bosnian state.
Those who served the state served him personally, not the
phantom Constitution, not the makeshift flag, not the sham
institutions of a non-existent government. This was hardly
the example western obituaries had in mind, but that is what
he really was.
Legacy and a Choice
history is one of conflicts between its various ethnic and
religious communities, of which the latest was not the worst.
But Izetbegovic's duplicitous ethnic politics – masquerading
as democracy, tolerance and civil society – may have poisoned
the well of Bosnian coexistence for generations. His jihad-waging,
multi-ethnic democratic autocracy is as plausible today as
it was in 1992, when Serbs, Croats and not a few Muslims rejected
it as nonsense.
Great Leader of the Bosnian Muslims may have just died, but
his ideas are very much alive. Thing is, truly free people
do not need Great Leaders, or father figures, or "grandfathers."
Those 150,000 people expected
at Izetbegovic's funeral Wednesday have not realized that
yet. But if they ever mean to free themselves from hatred
and fear, and live in peace with their non-Muslim neighbors,
they will have to.
has been laid to rest. His deadly legacy should be, too.
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