Izetbegovic in Oxford: On Islam and Europe

“Islam is not alien to the spirit of Europe”, was the main message of the leader of the leading Bosniak political party in Bosnia and Herzegovina Bakir Izetbegovic during his lecture delivered for the Oxford Islamic Center. He reminded the audience that European culture, history and civilization is not only Judeo-Christian in spirit but also Muslim. “Muslims were the co-creators and thus co-owners of European culture and civilization. … Muslims made a colossal contribution to the world culture and civilization”, he further stated.

Bakir Izetbegovic in his lecture portrayed the history of Bosnian Muslims as a struggle for recognition and equality under a multitude of oppressors.  Starting with medieval Bosnian kingdom and the Bosnian Church, Izetbegovic pondered over each period of Bosnian history leading up to the present. Bosnia to him stands for a meeting place of ideas, which has had a negative effect on the country as an “area of conflict” stirred externally. Bosnia to him flourished under the Ottomans while was suppressed under the Christian Austria-Hungary. However, he acknowledged the modernization contribution of the Austrian rulers and the lasting privileges’ Bosniaks have been enjoying since the late 19th century through this Austrian link. Significantly bleaker was his portrayal of Bosniaks I the 20th century, who were “marginalized, assimilated and threatened” by the socialist regime of Jozip Broz Tito. The latest war in Bosnia was to him a genocidal attack by Croatia and Serbia and an effort of colonization to split the country. “We are the moral victors of the war. … There is no military victory in this war,” he noted. A “victory of good over evil” was his brief assessment of the Bosnian war.

Zetbegovic’s narrative was clearly influenced by the legacy of his late father Alija Izetbegovic, the former leader of Bosniks during the 1990s war. Bakir Izetbegovic cited from his father’s well-known Islamic Declaration for which he was imprisoned during the socialist regime of Tito, accused of Islamic radicalism and public support for nationalist ideology, which was banned in socialist Yugoslavia. Alija Izetbegovic was also the main supporter for the national term “Bosniak”, which to him existed as a regional term for all population in the Bosnian territory already during medieval times.

As a leader of the strongest political party representing Bosnian Muslims, SDA (Party of Democratic Action), Bakir Izetbegovic spoke in the name of only one section of the Bosnian population, to which he referred to as Bosniaks in tradition of his late father. As if no other people suffered during the course of turbulent history in the Balkans, Izetbegovic only spoke the crimes committed on Bosniaks while leaving Croats and Serbs aside. His sheer lack of acknowledgment for the other groups living in Bosnia (he mentioned them only in passing) was indeed striking. When elaborating on the numbers of killed Bosnian Muslims during the Second World War, he did not remember great numbers of Serbs slaughtered in concentration camps. Neither did he mention Croats and Serbs cleansed and killed during the latest wars. A black-and-white, evil vs good, was the kind of history we were presented. Even more striking was Izetbegovic’s assessment of the reconciliation progress in the country as good and positive. It is difficult to imagine any expert on the country sharing his opinion that regional cooperation is good and reconciliation is heading the right way.

Although Izetbegovic’s correct and justified reminder that Islam is not foreign to Europe, its culture and history, his eulogy on the Bosniak people and the one-sided assessment of their history was inappropriate for the audience. However, as a representative of a political party from a divided country (though he disagrees on this assessment too), he certainly did not come with any surprises.

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