Alija Izetbegović was born in Bosanski Šamac on 8 August 1925, to a distinguished bey’s family (belonging to the gentry) which, though originally from Belgrade, was compelled in 1868, “under Serbian terror,” as the chronicles have it, to move to a place of greater safety.  They chose Bosanski Šamac.

Izetbegović’s grandfather, also called  Alija, was mayor of Bosanski Šamac.  He is said to have been highly regarded by the townspeople for his fairness and honesty.  The town will long recall the way in which he resolutely protected a group of leading Serb townspeople from the Austrian authorities when, following the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir-presumptive to the throne of Austria, they planned to hold them as hostages.

Alija Izetbegović’s earliest years were associated with the two rivers overlooked by the windows of the house where he was born: the Bosna and the Sava.  The name of the former foreshadowed the time when, already advanced in years, he and his Party of Democratic Action (SDA) came to power and he entered the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  It was not long before war broke out, and a desperate struggle to preserve the country’s newly-won independence and territorial integrity ensued.  In his youth, he had fought for the idea of Islam; in the final years of his life, he was focused entirely on the struggle for the rights of the Bosniacs and their homeland of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Alija was not yet two when his father Mustafa, a merchant and banker, decided to move to Sarajevo. The family was a large one; his parents were to have five children, three daughters and two sons, of whom Alija was the elder.  He also had two half-brothers from his father’s first marriage. Tragically, Mustafa was badly wounded on the Italian front in World War I, injuries which were later to result in a kind of palsy or paralysis that left him more or less bed-ridden for the last ten years of his life.  Though the whole family helped to look after him, Alija’s mother Hiba bore most of the burden of her husband’s illness.

His mother was a very pious woman, and Alija would later note that it was to her that he owed his early religious convictions.  Though he admitted that he found it hard to rise before first light to say his morning prayers with his mother, Izetbegović liked to recall that period in his life, and in particular the beautiful Qur’anic sura Ar-Rahman which older people recall was never recited more beautifully than by Imam Rahmanović in the hajji’s mosque opposite the City Hall.  The whole family agree that the young Alija combined the genetic features of both his parents: physically, he resembled his mother, but in character, they say, he was like his father. This, no doubt, helps to explain why Izetbegović junior broke free from parental influence at a fairly early age to live his own life.  When he was about fourteen, Izetbegović was influenced atheist and communist writings and his faith began to waver.  Communist propaganda was at its height in Yugoslavia just before the outbreak of World War II, partly as a reaction against fascism, which was in its golden – or rather, most sinister – age.  Yet, according to the “later” Izetbegović, communism did not mean democracy – “red” totalitarianism grew stronger to counter the “black” version.

Izetbegović was attending the First Boys’ Grammar School, where the communists were particularly active at the time. The school itself was reputed to be “communist” – according to the grapevine, some of the professors belonged to the movement.  A number of leaflets thus came into his hands, and he was not immune to their message; he began to be in two minds between the problems of social justice and injustice, on the one hand, and belief in God on the other.  However, even at first glance, the young Izetbegović’s doubts were aroused by the fact that the communist propaganda portrayed God as the “bad guy” and religion as “the opium of the people,” a way of keeping the masses so subdued and deadened that they would not struggle to improve their lot in “real life.”  Contrary to this, it always seemed to Izetbegović himself that the central message of faith, in its various forms, was to live a moral, responsible life.

Finally, after a year or two of spiritual and philosophical vacillation, Izetbegović returned to his faith with renewed strength, and in a new way.  Later it would seem to him that the steadiness of his faith was in fact the outcome of his youthful doubts; it was no longer the faith into which he had been born, a tradition he had inherited, but one he had adopted anew.  He was never to lose it again, even though later, as his writings on religious matters reveal, he constantly re-examined and studied it. (“The universe without God seemed utterly pointless to me,” Izetbegović was later to write in his Memoirs.)

Meanwhile, he read the classic works of European philosophy, and by the age of nineteen he already had a solid grounding in the writings of Hegel, Spinoza and Kant, whose “categorical imperative” had a particular impact on the inquisitive young man. He matriculated in 1943, at the height of the war, when the Izetbegović family, like most of their neighbours, were feeling the effects of war shortages and were more often hungry than sated.  Sarajevo was occupied by the Ustasha, who had imposed a harsh Nazi regime.  Izetbegović should have reported for military service, but did not do so; in the eyes of the authorities, he became the typical draft dodger, and had to remain in hiding throughout 1944.  When it became too risky for him to remain in Sarajevo, he escaped to his native Sava valley region.  As he would himself later admit, none of the armies there impressed him: neither the Partisans nor the Muslim militia, and least of all the Chetniks and the Ustasha. However, the fact that he did not take up arms did not mean that Izetbegović was uncommitted; on the contrary, he and a few others of like mind sought to articulate their political views through the Young Muslims organization.  The first attempt to register the society under the laws of the day was in March 1941. Not surprisingly, it failed, for in April, Germany attacked Yugoslavia, and the sole priority was to survive.  Strangely enough, the Young Muslims movement focused mainly on foreign policy and spiritual matters – in other words, questions relating to the contemporary Muslim world.  These Young Muslims recognized that “the state of politics in the Muslim world is wretched and unsustainable, while Islam is a living idea that can (and should) be modernized, without losing any of its essence” (as statements made at that time put it).  They were also well aware that most Muslim countries were under foreign rule, “whether by a military presence or that of [foreign] capital.”

Though not formally constituted, the organization was becoming ever more popular among grammar school pupils and students, and continued in operation throughout World War II.  Izetbegović’s first clash with the movement was in 1944, when it formed an alliance with El-Hidaja, the imams’ association.  As he often remarked, Alija “never fully agreed with the hojjas,” critical as he was of their rigid interpretation of Islam, the result of which, as he put it in his memoirs, “was to block its inward and outward development.”