Akif Emre interview with Alija Izetbegović

Today marks the anniversary of the death of Bosnia's "Wise King" Alija Izetbegovic. His last interview was conducted with World Bulletin editor-in-chief Akif Emre. Alija Izetbegovic, is the hero of Bosnian Muslim resistance during the siege of Sarajevo who led his country to independence from the genocidal campaign of Yugoslavia. He died in Sarajevo on Sunday, October 19, 2003 at the age of 78.

Akif Emre interview with Alija Izetbegović

World Bulletin / News Desk

Akif Emre, the editor-in-chief of the World Bulletin, interviewed the Bosnian legendary leader Alija Izetbegovic prior to to his death on October 19 2003.

Izetbegović, who established a free Bosnian state despite all difficulties and challenges, is considered a ''Father'' by his people and is named the ''Wise King'' thanks to his wide knowledge and background in political matters.

Akif Emre: Before you struggle as an intellectual and a political leader, I think that understanding to continue your life style is going to help us to understand a lot of things better. So, can we start with talking about what kind of family you were brought up? What kind of historical and cultural heritage was the family you were brought up reflecting?

Alija IzetbegovićIn order to make atmospehere that I was brought up clear, I would like to start with the story of a child with the same name "Alija" as me. The story of a child who is going to marry a Turkish girl when he grows up. At the end of the 19th century while completing his military service in Uskudar, he married a girl whose name was "Sıdıka"19. He got five sons. One of his sons was my deceased father, Mustafa. Till 1927,after the Turks withdrew from Baghdat, we moved to the city Bosnaski Samats where the Muslims lived condensed.

This is a region that Sultan Aziz allocated for Muslims around "Us", then it is a region that is opened to reside. Till 1927 I lived with my family there. We were five children, two boys and three girls. I was the middle child.

My father was related with trade. But it cannot be said that he was good at trade. After he bankrupted, when I was two years old we moved to Sarajevo.

There were both the negative and positive results of our settlement in Sarajevo. The negative results; since my father was a little clerk we had a difficult life. our life passed in trouble.

The good side was, by having the chance to have education, I finished high school and university here. After finishing the high school, I continued the faculty of agriculture for three years. Leaving the school that I unvoluntarily continued, I had my registration in the faculty of justice. I graduated from this department in 1956.

Generally I spent my childhood in different parts of Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavia of my children was different from the Yugoslavia of the Tito era that Turks know.

This period, Kara Georgevich dynasty was reigning. The founder of this dynasty was the famous Kara Georgevich, who rebelled against the Turks. He started a rebellion against the Turkish administration in Serbia, even he reigned for a while.

After this by establising the Kara Georgevich dynasty in the beginning of the 20th century, in 1903 this dynasty reigned. Yugoslavia was under the dictate of this dynasty.

Serbs, only making the 40% of all the population were dominant in the country. The important places of the administration; ministries, army, canton administration, police department and even the education were in the hands of the Serbs.

As far as I remember, all of my teachers in the secondary school were Serbs. I had my childhood under the hegemony of the Serbs.

Those times there were three oficially recognized nations; Serbs, Croations and Slovenes. Serbs were completely dominant. Muslims were not recognized as a nation.

This situation can explain the political positions of the Muslims clearly. The economical situation of the Muslims; after the first world war land reform started a new level. Practically the land reform aimed the poverty of the Muslims and this result was taken.

With the land reform, 10 millions acres of land belonging to the Muslims were captured. Many very rich families became as poor as the beggars within a few years. These years were very hard for the Muslims. 

In the Yugoslavian era, Muslims had a foundation that was shortly named as YMO, the Yugoslav Muslim Organization. The leader of the organization was Memet Spaho who was killed by Serbs in 1939.

However he could not achieve a concrete success, he was the only person who managed to organize the Muslims.

The organization aiming the Bosnians to gain autonomy in their struggle, gathered most of the Muslims under its roof.

Akif Emre: But the autonomy could not be obtained. (It will take my attention that the avunue in front of the SDA general center that we make this interview, will be given the Mehmet Spaho name as a sign of fidelity…. A.E) 

Alija Izetbegović : As this aim could not come true, Serbs and Croatians shared and wanted to divide Bosnia.

Just before the World War II, in the 1939 August they signed an agreement sharing Bosnia between each other. This is the famous Seyetkovich- Macak agreement signed between the Serbian Seyetkovich and Croatian Macak.

Bosnia where the Muslims were majority, the places the Serbs were more would be given to the Serbs, the places the Croatians were more would be given to the Croatians. In the places where the Muslims were the majority, Muslims would be considered as non existant and would be given to the Serbs and Croatians according to their population.

This is the picture of the economical, political and social picture of the Muslims remained deprived of all kinds of supports in the former Yugoslavia. 

Akif Emre: You were brought up in a term that the Muslims were seiged completely and left without owners. As the political situation in the world, the state of the Muslims were not fine. But as far as we know, even under these conditions there were alive and intellectual Islamic studies. Where were you standing at these studies?

Alija Izetbegović: Just before the World War II, there was a group known as the Young Muslims (Bladi Müselmani) in Sarajevo in 1938. This group used to look for solutions for problems of the Muslims under the effect of the thinkers of this age and the movements in the Islam world in the 19th century.

Among these I can say important names as Resit Rıza and Muhammed Abduh. I think that they are effected by the ideology that they developed. By keeping in touch with this group I adopted the thinking style that was aiming the Islamic awakening.

Islamic history, the role of Muslims in the history were in our agenda, we were discussing and thinking about such kind of topics.

Muslims established three big centers of civilization. In the Middle East, India symbolized with Taj Mahal and the civilization identified with Al Hamra Palace in Spain.

We were talking about the golden age of the Turks from India to Vienna and we were discussing the situation of the Islamic world.

We believed that Islam world should be in better conditions, and we were trying to find ways for this. I acted with this group.

But besides this, the Islamic education that I got from my family was more important in the formation of my personality. My deceased mother Hiba was a very god-fearing woman. I had an eternal love for my mother and I used to love the things she loved. My mother was a woman loving her religion and living Islam. Already the rooted family traditions and the education that we had were the determining and were the important factors in order to protect our Muslim identity in such a chaotic situation.

I think when I was 15-16, I remember my alienation to the religion. As a young person I used to read books; the books that I read can be effective on my this situation.

Among the books that I read, the books on atheism were also taking place. But this situation did not last for long. When I was 17, I converted to Islam and till today I did not leave this path.

The most important reason for me to convert to Islam was my deep hate against Communism and Fascism. Today I hate these two ideologies. 

Akif Emre: In the social and cultural conversion of the Bosnian Muslims, in their pains, I think there is a determining effect of the Ottoman withdrawal from here. How did the effects of the withdrawal of the civilization that was lived here for centuries appear in the catholic atmosphere on the Bosnian Muslims that you also were in?

Alija Izetbegović: The withdrawal of the Ottomans from Bosnia after the Berlin congress is a historical turning point for the Bosnian Muslims. This was not only restricted with the administrative change, but also meant to force for the change of the Bosnian Muslims' culture and civilization. 
This event was not only the passage from the Turkish empire administration to the Austria-Hungary empire, it was a sign of a complete change of culture and civilization.

We belonged to the chain of the Muslim civilization that the Turks belonged to. Bosnian Muslims accepted this change very hard.

In our history there are three different 8 numbers. These are 1878,1908 and 1918.

It is 1878 that Turks actually withdrew from Bosnia and the Austrian invasion started. Turkey officially went on its reign for 30 years more. With the Anex agreement in 1908, the domination of the Turkish Sultan on Bosnia officially ended. The pictures of Austria-Hungary emperor were hanged instead of the Sultan's.

These 30 years passed after, were very tragedic for the Bosnian Muslims. Because everytime they were in a hope. Some of the public thought that the Turks would come back because of the agreement in the Berlin conference. A group of people, by thinking in a rationalist way, was aware of the truth that this was not possible any more. A period of waiting between hope and fear…

Muslims who were waiting for the return of the Ottomans even did not go to school. In this period, Muslims lost 30 years of time. By the way a rich and elite group of people immigrated to Turkey. Only the poors stayed back.

In 1908, with the application of the Anex, a new wave of immigration started towards Turkey.

The continuous decrease of the Muslim population went on till the first half of this century. After these 70-year lasting immigrations, the Muslim population decreased from 40% to 30 %.

The immigration of the educated and wealthy Muslims to Turkey after the withdrawal of the Ottomans is the most important event determining the current situation of Bosnia today. There was a Bosnia facing the troubles of a group that has lost its trained people…

Akif Emre: I think the period that determines your life starts at this point. Let's talk about the period after the world war, if you would like. A cold war era started, a new Yugoslavia was established. What kind of facilities were you doing these years?

Alija Izetbegović: I did not join the army during the World War II, I was runaway. In 1945, after the communists started ruling, I was taken to the army. I was a soldier in their army for a year. In 1946, by being arrested due to the political reasons I was sentenced for 3 years.

After 3 years in prison, I was released on March 4, 1949. And I married Miss Halide. I have two daughters and a son. I went on my education. By registering in the faculty of agriculture, till 1952 I attended there. In 1952 after leaving the faculty of agriculture, I registered for the faculty of justice.

In 1963, I passed the test of advocacy. The things that I did in my business life can be divided into two: In the first ten years after my faculty life, I worked as a manager for the construction of a big dam in Montenegro. I had the advantages of my experiences there in my future works.

In 1964, after returning back to work as a lawyer, I worked as the consultant of law for the big companies. In this way I retired in 1981. In this period, I wrote many articles on Islam and published them in various magazines.

In 1969 I prepared the Islamic Declaration. In 1974-1975 I wrote the book named Islam between East-West.

Islamic Declaration was translated into 5-6 languages. As far as I know it was also translated into Turkish. My book, "Islam between East-West" was translated into more than 10 languages. And the first edition was published when I was in prison. Because in 1983, after being prisoned with my 12 friends I was sentenced for 14 years.

Akif Emre: We know that the period you were judged with your 12 friends because of your thoughts had a big echo in the world. In a way you had a universal language as a struggle for independence in the name of Islam under the communist regime. How was your life in prison, what did you do in this period?

Alija Izetbegović: The only thing that I can say about the life in prison is that it was very bad. But I cannot say that I especially had bad treatment in the prison. But I was isolated from the society, for six years I could not get out of the walls. Just for 5 years and 8 months I was in the prison in Foca.

I almost spent half of this time by working in the workshop of the prison. Because of bronchitis, I had to leave working. Because the workshop that I was working was a carpentry shop and pyhsical power was required. We were making things like chairs and tables.

But during my life in prison, I read many books. I was able to read 30 or 40 pages from different books. So I can accept myself read a library of 50,000 pages.

I was very precious in the eyes of the other prisoners since I was a lawyer. Whatever your business is, you are nothing in the prison. But your being a lawyer gives you a priviledge. Because lawyers have duties as guiding the prisoners, and wrting the petitions of objection. I was the only lawyer in the prison so I was always demanded.

In our dormitory 100 prisoners were staying. People were telling me what they lived in their past. This helped me to recognize the life and people better.

Most of the prisoners in our dormitory were prisoned because of the murder and I almost knew the stories of all. I used to help them write the petition of objection and help them prepare their defense. They used to tell me about themselves. In a paradoxal way, I was accepting myself lucky that I was among the murderers in the prison.

Because, the thieves and swindlers are people with low character; but murderers are not so. Half of these were either because of the humanity reasons or the ones who became murderers because of the objection against the injustice or they had certain personalities.

As I listened to their life stories, I recognized the life better. Although it was forbidden, I was reading and taking notes.

A prisoner secretly took the notes of 13 notebooks that I wrote in the prison. Later during ten years, I never read these notes.

In 1999 I started to rearrange these notes again. In 1999 it was published in Bosnian with the name "Escape to freedom" The reason why I named this book so, was because my soul found the escape to freedom in reading and writing. This book was translated into English and will be published in America. These are the traces of the years in prison remaining today.

Of course bad things are forgotten, I do not remember them any more. I am not a retrospective person but I always look for the future.

Akif Emre: After getting out of the prison, you had a historic mission. You became the president, you declared the independence of Bosnia for the fist time. As a cost of this, your people were massacred. Were you expecting such a massacre?

Alija Izetbegović: In the December of 1991, I mean 5 months before the war, in a speech I explained my worries on what should happen in Bosnia Herzegovnia. I explained what should happen if the independence of Bosnia was obstacled. But some percieved my words as prophecy. Because whatever I said came true.

Yugoslavia was separated, Croatia and Slovenia declared independence. Bosnia-Herzagovinia had to make a choice either to separate or join Yugoslavia. I thought that we did not have a right to choose, we had no future together with Serbia and Montenegro that were forming Yugoslavia.

Before that I tried to find a solution for preventing the dispersal of Yugoslavia with the president of Macedonia, Gligorov.

Because the protection of the unity of Yugoslavia was in our favour. Muslims spreaded to a broad land from Libya to Macedonia. Even if the Muslims were condensed in Bosnia, they also settled in Macedonia, Sancak, Croatia and Kosovo. The continuity of their existance was depended on their going on their relations and connections within the unity. We tried to protect the unity of Yugoslavia since it was in our favour. But there was nothing we could do. After the separation of Croatia and Slovenia Yugoslavian army intervened these two countries.

A ceasefire was declared between the Croatian and Yugoslavian armies in the beginning of 1992. Yugoslavian army withdrew from Croatia to Bosnia. So we noticed that the disaster approached.

Here I must clearly point out that; even if I warned my people on a possible war, I did not expect the Serbs to start a massacre against the Muslims.

Because of the time and place we were living in, I did not expect this. It was Europe that we lived in and it was the end of the 20th century.

Because of the time and place we were living in, I did not expect this.

Who could think that at the end of the 20th century, a nation could massacre another nation? Unfortunately this happened and my prophecy in December 1991 was practised with the worst way.

Akif Emre: The entire world knows that during the independence war your country had big difficulties and pains. What if I want to you to share your memories that effected you, you cannot forget and want to transfer to the future… 

Alija Izetbegović:
 The most important event in July 1995 that not only shook me, but also the entire Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovinia is the Srebrenica massacre that we lost 7-8 thousands of our people. This is also the biggest civilian massacre after the World War II.

No doubt that I have a lot of memories. I lived 1200 days under the siege in Sarajevo, estimated more than 700,000 heavy machinery bullets fell on. Each day that is lived in such an atmosphere is a memory itself.

The destruction of the historical Mostar bridge is another unforgettable memory. This moment of destruction was the hardest moment for us in the war.

We were surrounded from all directions, it was the third winter of the war. I still very clearly remember today who informed me that Mostar bridge was bombed, and what kind of mood I had that moment in November of 1993.

But the resistance of my people in this war is the thing that will always be in the minds. This resistance will be remembered as the miracle of the Bosnia-Herzegovinia.

Here we managed to stop the most fourth equipped army of Europe. We managed to defend most of the major cities and most of the independent lands. We produced guns in 65 military factory.

In spite of the embargo on weapons, we got weapons from mostly the Islamic countries.

Shortly, if someone asks me what effected me the most in the war, I say it is our resistance. All the world admired our resistance. We showed that we are a nation that has a victory under the siege, passed the test with the fire. 

Only in Sarajevo more than 10 thousands of people were killed. 1300 of them were children. Since we did not have graveyards to bury our deads, we turned the parks into the graveyard.

This is a truth that, the Islam world could not come together in any other topics as they did in order to help Bosnia. Islam world is a big world that is consisted of different nations, different regimes and that is under the different effects.

In spite of all these differences, a world that managed to unite in the Bosnian issue. Huntington who noticed this truth, in one of his work points out the Islam world United in the Bosnian issue and helped. This aid was military or practical or encouragement.

And Turkey is one of the pioneer countries of the Islamic countries that helped Bosnia.

Turkey has helped us a lot. Even today I cannot explain the content of these helps. In this context I apprecite the Turkish people for their help.

As for the western world, according to me, they betrayed their own principles. According to the declaration that the westerns prepared in order to prevent the massacre, if there is a massacre in a region, it must be intervened.

In Bosnia Herzegovinia there is a complete massacre. And the western world pretended as if it did not see this massacre for three years. It was clearly seen how unprepared Europe was in preventing the massacre in its heart.

At last the intervention of the western countries that has been waited happened. NATO powers bombed the Serb positions in August 1995 and the war ended in a short time.

After the intervention in August, an agreement in November was signed. Dayton was an injustice agreement signed under the domination of the Europe, especially America. In spite of everything it was an agreement that brought peace.

But Dayton agreement could not solve the Bosnia Herzegovinia problem. Because of the conditions of Dayton, very serious problems about the administration of the government occured.

The function of the western countries was till here. I have to determine that, the western countries helped us by opening the doors to the regugees that was very important for us. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), prevented the mass deaths of starvation by organizing the aid campaigns.

Akif Emre: Even if it rewards the guilties in a sense, Dayton stopped the guns. Bosnia Herzegovinia is walking towards a new future. How do you see this future?

Alija Izetbegović: Muslims defended the integrity of Bosnia, making the ideal of living together with all the cultural and differences real. The warrant of the maintenance of its existance is the existance of the Muslims.

I see Bosnia as a European country. I see its future in being a member of the family of Europe. But we must solve our identity problem.

Our belonging to the Europe enables us to maintain our physical existance.

But on the other hand it can destroy our spiritual side. As the peole of Bosnia Herzegovinia we must solve our material and spiritual problems. I think that Turkey is facing the same problems. Turkey both wants to integrate with Europe and must protect its identity.

Just as Turkey, I think Bosnia should be a bridge between east and west. Bosnia must lean on two powerful sources; the western culture and the eastern tradition. Here it is the basic problem that Bosnians and Turks must solve.

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