The passing of an icon

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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Last month marked 15 years since the death of Alija Izetbegovic, the first president of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Though Izetbegovic become a regular feature on international TV as the abandoned president during the brutal civil war which consumed his country from 1992 to 1995 and saw genocide and mass graves re-emerge in Europe, the event passed without much fanfare or reportage outside Bosnia.

Born in 1925, the successful lawyer and scholar had a long and arduous journey to the presidency. He first came to the attention of Tito’s communist authorities in 1970 when he published a political manifesto titled the Islamic Declaration which tried to marry Western democratic ideals with the Islamic tradition. The regime saw this as nothing more than a covert roadmap to an Islamic republic particularly after Izetbegovic also founded an organisation called the Young Muslims to encapsulate these ideals.

Undeterred by the threats, his manifesto was followed by twelve other books including the seminal “Islam Between East and West” which presented itself as a modern treatise on Islamic culture and civilisation in the modern democratic age.

Izetbegovic was to die eight years after the signing of the Dayton Accord. He left a legacy of the “Wise King” who gifted Bosnia independence and a multi-party democratic system.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

By 1983 the authorities had had enough of Izetbegovic’s intellectual crusading and imprisoned him along with twelve other Bosnian activists to fourteen years in prison. The trial was described by Amnesty International as being “based on communist propaganda”. Nevertheless, Izetbegovic was released five years later in 1988 and subsequently founded the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) with an aim to give voice to the Bosnian people in a post communist era.

1990 saw the first multi-party elections in post-Yugoslavia where the SDA won 86 seats in the 240 seat assembly. Two years later a referendum was held in which over 99% of the voters elected for Bosnia to become an independent state. One month later Bosnia and Herzegovina was recognised by the EU and UN as a new independent country with Izetbegovic as it’s first president.

However, not everyone was pleased with the result. The leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadic rejected the plebiscite and called for an armed campaign against the Bosnian democrats including the Muslims and the Croats. Assisting him was President Slobodan Milosovic from neighbouring Serbia who had inherited the Yugoslav army - the fourth largest in Europe - after the communist regime’s collapse. What ensued was genocide, rape camps and mass killings not seen in Europe since the Second World War.

Despite daily news of unbelievable horrors, Izetbegovic never wavered from his vision of a democratic Bosnia with all nationalities and ethnicities represented. Izetbegovic was adamant that the Bosnian forces must never engage in the war crimes or retribution against civilians as practiced openly and unashamedly by his adversaries. This was recognized by the likes of the Guardian newspaper in it’s famed headline “Bosnian forces keep banner clean in dirty war.”

Alas, Bosnia was abandoned to it’s fate by the international community where the fear of a Muslim majority state within Europe’s borders was seen as being more problematic than genocide. When President Izetbegovic pleaded with France’s President Mitterrand to assist the beleaguered new democratic state, Mitterrand’s response was abundantly clear when he responded that “France will never tolerate an Islamic state in Europe.”

President Izetbegovic was consequently forced to sign the Dayton Peace Accord – recognised as the most complicated political agreement in the world which has paralysed Bosnia both politically and economically since it’s ratification in 1995. The agreement was not designed to to last indefinitely but only to bring the war to and end. The international community however lost all interest in Bosnia after hostilities ended. And the architect of the agreement, the veteran US diplomat Richard Holbrook, wore it as a badge of pride as the negotiator who brought one of the bloodies wars in Europe to an end, and refused tov entertain any tinkering lest it be exposed for it’s palpable shortcomings. Many hoped Holbrook’s death in 2010 would bring the intransigence to an end but alas Europe had much bigger problems to focus on with the migrant crisis and looming financial meltdown.

Izetbegovic was to die eight years after the signing of the Dayton Accord. He left a legacy of the “Wise King” who gifted Bosnia independence and a multi-party democratic system. A scholar and leader who despite the genocidal horrors engulfing his country ensured he would not waver from his ideals and principles even whilst he was being brutally betrayed by the international community.

Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

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