The life of Bosniak leader Alija Izetbegovic (1925-2003) followed a pattern common among the youthful educated Muslims of his generation.
Born in Bosanski Samac, Bosnia, in 1925, Izetbegovic was from a wealthy family, raised in a multi-cultural society, and educated at a German school. Still, despite his cosmopolitan background by age sixteen he was different from his peers; a committed Islamist, he had already rejected the politics of the Yugoslavian Royalists, the disciples of Ataturk, and the Communists. And even though the Muslims of Yugoslavia were denied their own political party, at age fifteen he helped found the clandestine Young Muslims (Hiddaya).
The Hiddaya was a politico-religious gathering based on the Ikhwan al-Muslimin movement of Egypt. Some of its members had attended Al Azhar University in Cairo and had even joined the Ikhwan while living in Egypt. Its goal was the creation of a Muslim state in the Balkans itself. As Izetbegovic wrote in his book “Islamska Deklaracija” (Islamic Declaration): “Our goal: the Islamization of Muslims. Our methods: to believe and to struggle.” In his mind there existed no possibility of coexistence between Islam and Western institutions. Distributed clandestinely, and first published in 1970, Izetbegovic would later admit that in his youth radical Islamists like Arslan had left an indelible impression that would last the rest of his life.
During WWII Europe’s Muslim minority emerged from the shadows following the 1941 German invasion of Yugoslavia. Alija Izetbegovic welcomed the event and then reportedly served as a recruiter for the German Handzar Division — the Croatia-based SS unit manned exclusively by some 20,000 Muslims. However, unlike many Handzar who fled to Western Europe following the end of the war, Izetbegovic and his lifelong friend and fellow Islamist Nedzib Sacirbey remained in Yugoslavia where they continued the organization of the Muslim community.
(A group of Muslim volunteers of “Handzar” division. All wear fez caps. Logos are skull with crossed bones and SS eagle. Fez was worn by the Muslim soldiers and their German officers alike. There were different models of fez in different colors (green, red, with or without the tail). The uniform collars had a curved sword and swastika engraved on them.)
Izetbegovic was arrested in 1946 by the Communist government of Marshall Tito. Accused of publishing A Warrior and Servant of Allah, a journal whose policies differed little from those of the international Ikhwan al-Muslimun, he would serve three years in prison. But he would not be cowed. Years later, when Egyptian President Nasser asked after the Muslim leader, Tito replied that Izetbegovic was “more dangerous than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.”(Islam Online, 2003).
Politically, Izetbegovic was the force behind the ephemeral Federation of Balkan Islamic States, an Islamist universe that included Muslim minorities in Macedonia, Bulgaria, Kosovo, and the inert Muslim majority in Albania. He argued that Islam could not possibly coexist with Western institutions, and thus Bosnia’s Muslims were to eschew absorption within a multi-ethnic, Communist, and secular Yugoslavia.
Despite his Islamist views Izetbegovic managed to survive the long Communist dictatorship of Marshall Tito that ended with his death in May 1980. Shortly after that, Yugoslavia’s new leadership had been greatly displeased when the Organization of the Islamic Conference, sensing a leadership vacuum, met in Cairo in August 1982 and laid plans to provide direct support to Muslim communities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Izetbegovic was then arrested in 1983 for distributing “Islamic propaganda,” and he was sentenced to nine years in prison.
It is posited that Izbegovic’s arrest resulted from a complaint lodged by Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian leader objected to a March 1982 trip to Yugoslavia undertaken by Hasan Nasir, son of the deceased Egyptian President Gamil abd al-Nasir and a budding political rival. Named (incorrectly) by Yugoslavian intelligence as the leader of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, Nasir had arrived in Yugoslavia accompanied by numerous so-called “Ihvans,” or youthful members of the Ikhwan al-Muslimun. (Traditionally, many Ikhwan had applied to study at Yugoslav universities but they often preferred playing politics to taking a degree.)
In November 1988 Izetbegovic was released from prison, and by 1990 plans formulated in prison to create an Islamist party of Bosnia, were already well underway Simultaneously, in January 1990 the Bosnia and Herzegovina National Security Service branch reported the attempt by one Mustafa Kamel, a Gaza resident and student at the Faculty of Engineering in Zagreb, to form benches of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tuzla, Bosnia. That move, which included military training, was meant to enlarge the branch of the Eastern Europe Muslim Brotherhood and was supported by Izetbegovic.