Bosnia Herzegovina marks birthday of pivotal leader Alija Izetbegovic

Bosnia Herzegovina marks birthday of pivotal leader Alija Izetbegovic

Called the 'Wise King,' Izetbegovic is commemorated with respect and recognition of loss on the 98th anniversary of his birthday

By Talha Ozturk

BELGRADE, Serbia (AA) - Bosnia Herzegovina on Monday marked the 98th birthday of Alija Izetbegovic, the country's first president and a pivotal figure in the troubled history of the Balkans.

The late Izetbegovic – a politician, writer, and lawyer, who came to international prominence during the country's bitter 1992-1995 war – is remembered every year on his birthday across Bosnia Herzegovina and in Türkiye.

Often called the "Wise King," Izetbegovic managed to gain independence for his country on March 1, 1992 – months after Slovenia and Croatia broke away from the former Yugoslavia.

Earlier, his writings got him in trouble with the Yugoslav authorities. Along with 12 other Bosniak scholars, he was jailed for 14 years after being accused of separatism and establishing an Islamic state in 1983 but was released in 1988.

It was in Izetbegovic's Islamic Declaration, published in 1970, that Bosnian independence, national consciousness, and the expansion of Islamic thought found an audience.

The book dealt with the relationship between the West and the Islamic world and how to build a new civilization.

That same year he entered politics and founded the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) in 1990 – aiming to empower Bosniaks in their own land.

In the 1990s’ first multiparty elections in Yugoslavia, Bosnia's SDA won 86 seats in the 240-seat parliament.

In February-March 1992, a referendum on independence for Bosnia Herzegovina got 64% turnout, with 99.44% voting in favor of becoming independent.

A month later, the European Union and the United States recognized the new state.

However, Radovan Karadzic, then-political leader of Bosnia's Serbs, rejected the result and was the political face of an armed campaign that culminated in “ethnic cleansing,” a return to mass murder in postwar Europe.

But neither during the ensuing war nor during the 1995 Srebrenica genocide of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys did Izetbegovic lose the spirit of resistance.

- An end to war, a legend born

Support for Izetbegovic and his government came from some unexpected quarters.

In the US, one sports megastar was moved by the suffering of Muslims thousands of miles away in Europe and began rallying support to stop the suffering.

Muhammad Ali – the internationally famous boxing star – lent his support to Bosnia's campaign for international aid.

Ali went to the UN on behalf of the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He was welcomed by Muhamed Sacirbey, Bosnia's first ambassador to the organization, at UN headquarters in New York.

From that time, only one photo remains – Izetbegovic embracing Muhammad Ali.

Ali did not speak to the media at the time, but the image remains a powerful symbol of resistance.

In November 1995, Bosniaks – amid international pressure – stopped the war and signed the famed Dayton Agreement, bringing peace to the country.

After stepping down as chair of Bosnia's presidency in 2000, Izetbegovic lived alone on one floor of his house in Sarajevo and died on Oct. 19, 2003, of natural causes.

Leaving a flag to his country, Izetbegovic died in 2003, eight years after the Dayton Agreement was signed.

The death of Izetbegovic was bitter news, and media headlines from that time are proof of the sadness and mourning of the Bosniak people: "He was the father of the people"; "Without Alija, Bosnia and Herzegovina would not exist"; "Man of Peace dies"; and "Thank you, President."

Per his request, Izetbegovic's remains were laid to rest in the humble Kovaci area of Sarajevo, with the words "I vow to God – whose strength is above all – we will not be slaves" on his gravestone.

"If we forget the genocide done to us, we are compelled to live it again. I shall never tell you to seek revenge, but never forget what has been done," Izetbegovic once told his people.

"To become the teacher of the earth below, one has to become the student of the sky above. Law is not only my profession but my preference for living and my life's motto.

"We won't seek our future in the past. We won't run after grudge and revenge."

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