President's Speeches

President's Speeches

“Law occupies a central place in the political opinion and practice of Alija Izetbegović”

19 October 2018

Distinguished Participants, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to extend you my most sincere greetings.

I commemorate with grace and gratitude the memory of the late Alija Izetbegović, the great person whose memorial brought us together today at this meeting. May he rest in peace.

I would like to express my gratitude for participating in this conference held, on the occasion of the death anniversary of such a brilliant pole star, at the university where he studied. I would also like to express my gratitude towards those who have organized this conference, also for giving this opportunity to me.

There is no doubt that the name of Alija Izetbegović evokes a multi-dimensional person. A determined man of struggle, a brave commander, a fair and wise president… In my opinion, among all these features, it was first of all his being an intellectual that has made him unique and kept his thoughts alive.

We have gathered here to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the death of a thinker who has indeed shaped the thoughts and enlightened the minds of many people. Considering that the thought in the sense of meditation and reflection is rarely found today and that our world has become more and more scarce in this sense, it has become much more meaningful to commemorate “a thinker” in the full sense of the word.

At this point, I would like to mention Martin Heidegger, a philosopher whom Izetbegović also cited in his books. Heidegger, in his speech he delivered in 1955 on the occasion of the 175th birth anniversary of a composer who was also his fellow countryman, mentioned exactly this poverty of thoughts. He stated that the man did not think and even avoided thinking and that therefore, commemorative meetings were far from thoughts and even stood side by side with thoughtlessness.1 However, according to Heidegger, “Man is a thinking, that is, a mediating being”.2

Today, I would like to talk about the ideas developed on the concepts of justice, law and freedom by Izetbegović, who exactly meets the description made by Heidegger. Of course, I could not discuss all aspects of Izetbegović’s thoughts. Neither the time allocated to me nor my knowledge that I have obtained by reading Turkish and English translations of his books allows me to do so. Mine is an effort to take a modest and limited step into Izetbegović’s rich world of thought.

Let’s try to take this step into his rich contemplation world together.

1. Overview: Being a bridge between East and West

Distinguished participants,

You know the famous poem by the English poet Rudyard Kipling who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He says: “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat”.

Alija was the one who stood between East and West and wanted to bring them together. Here we are talking about a thinker who had a good grasp of the eastern and western civilizations and analysed both worlds’ spiritual and intellectual roots in detail. By merely reading his book “Islam between East and West”, we can see his knowledge over the ideas of the West from Ancient Greece to today on one hand, and the ideas of the East from the first era of Islam to today on the other. This book takes you on a mental journey from Aristotle to Heidegger, from Sophocles to Nietzsche, from Stoics to Frankfurt School and from Western classics to Russian literature, where concepts and institutions such as thought, art, history, civilization, technology and law are elaborated.

However, this book of Izetbegović is not a book on the history of thought or philosophy that intends to provide information to the reader. He has a thesis. In my opinion, the main thesis of Izetbegović that he defended in his all books and throughout his life is: “Yes, East is East, and West is West. However, the one who may bring them together is Allah, the master of both.” According to Izetbegović, it is also the Creator who gives the meaning to the moral conducts such as good and evil, responsibility and, in the last instance, to the human existence, as well as creating the history.

In fact, this is an exact reflection of the mission of bridge between the East and the West. Izetbegović sees this as a matter of identity for Bosnia-Herzegovina. This requires being European on one hand and protecting own values on the other. Two years before his death, during an interview with the late journalist Akif Emre, Izetbegović ended his words by mentioning this issue. He stated that “Just like Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina should be a bridge between East and West”, therefore “Bosnia-Herzegovina must lean on two powerful sources: the Western culture and the Eastern tradition” and that this constitutes “the basic issue that Bosnians and Turks must solve on their own”.3

2. Justice: “The greatest commandment”

In fact, Izetbegović, while putting forward this significant issue of identity, also explained its basic parameters at different times. Accordingly, in terms of political/social order, the basic concept of “justice” comes to the fore.

The master of the East and the West has ordered “justice” that will bring both of them together (Al-Aráf, 7/29; An-Nahl, 16/90). Justice, which is “the greatest commandment” in Izetbegović’s words, is “both a personal and a social virtue”. From this aspect, justice serves to discipline a person, both as a human being and as a citizen.4

Therefore, it can be said that the idea defended by Izetbegović throughout his life was the establishment of a fair political/legal order based on equality and freedom where diversities coexisted. Indeed, Izetbegović, like many intellectuals before him, strived for a fair world in which diversities would coexist.

Izetbegović has two basic characteristics that distinguish him from modern and post-modern thinkers such as Kant, Rawls, Derrida and Foucault who also defend that it is vital to have a healthy ontological relationship with “the other”. First, what lies behind Izetbegović’s opinions in this respect is his understanding of Islam that formed his identity and influenced his system of thought. Second, unlike other thinkers, Izetbegović, as a statesman, put his thoughts into practice to a certain extent.

Alija Izetbegović considers that “justice” manifests itself in a relationship with “the other”. He definitely places tolerance, a behaviour pattern that is learned and developed hardly rather than being an innate virtue, at the centre of this relationship. In fact, what is instinctive is intolerance”. For this reason, Izetbegović says that it takes years to adopt and demonstrate this behaviour. As a matter of fact, it has taken centuries to acknowledge the presence of a synagogue next to a mosque and a church next to it.5

Izetbegović adopted and defended “the concept of civilized life where always the sounds of Azan would be heard from the mosques and the sounds of bells from the churches”.6 In his speech that he delivered at the 49th Session of the UN General Assembly, Izetbegović stated: “What we call Bosnia is not merely a slip of land in the Balkans. For many of us, Bosnia is an idea. It is the belief that people of different religions, nations and cultural traditions can live together.”7

In addition, Izetbegović says that the spiritual root of this behaviour pattern that he developed in himself is Islam. During an interview with a German magazine in 1994, Izetbegović was addressed a question starting with the statement You are known as a Muslim partaking of European tolerance”. He corrected this phrase by telling “My tolerance is not of European but of Muslim origin. If I am tolerant, it is first and foremost as a Muslim, and only then as a European”.8 He did not refrain from explaining the historical reflections of this tolerance during the same interview. He said that indeed the Turks do not have a flexible understanding of administration; however, they did not destroy the temple of any religion in the Balkans during their centuries-long rule.

It is possible to find in “Ahidname”, written by Mehmed the Conqueror in 1463, the manifestation of the tolerance mentioned by Izetbegović. Sultan Mehmed, in this text, undertakes that no one will interfere with the Bosnian (Franciscan) clergy and their churches, they will live in the country safely and freely, and no one will interrupt, attack or hurt them, their lives, their goods, their churches and visitors coming abroad”.

Approximately 90 years after “Ahidname”, a tragic reflection of an understanding that was completely the opposite of this concept of tolerance occurred in Geneva in 1563. A Spanish man named Michael Servetus was accused of heresy due to his religious convictions and sentenced to death by burning slowly together with his books.9 Although the denial of religious truths (blasphemy) was not always punished with death by burning alive, it had been applied in many European countries, especially in England, for many years.10

However, it must be immediately noted that in all eras, there have been those who have raised the voice of their conscience against deadly fanaticism. Castellio, another religious scholar, issued a manifesto on tolerance in protest of the understanding that led to the burning of Servetus. Castellio criticized the attribution of all this savagery to Jesus in these words: “Oh, it is what a vile daring of people to lay such things that may only be the demon’s desire and invention on Jesus!”11

In addition, Izetbegović describes the basic philosophy of a fair social and political order as the principle of “being human and staying human”. This principle gives us a key for understanding our lives personally and existentially on one hand, and for living in peace together with those who see themselves different on the other. In other words, “being human and staying human” embodies two principles: one is moral and the other is legal/political.

The moral concept of “being human and staying human” refers, in political discourse, to the understanding of a democratic state of law. Izetbegović states: “In political discourse, it means that we will try to establish a state of law. This also means in practice that in this State no one will be persecuted for their religion or for their national or political belief. This is our most fundamental rule”.12

It is explicit that the moral and political principle, expressed as “being human and staying human”, entails a democratic state that is based on the rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms.

3. Law: “Bipolar unity”

Law occupies a central place in the political opinion and practice of Izetbegović. He explains his legal understanding in his book Islam between East and West by criticizing Marxist and positivist approaches. In his article titled “On the Jewish Question”, Marx considers human rights that are supposed to be inherent in all human beings by the virtue of human dignity as the rights of egoist middle-class person who has been isolated from society. Jeremy Bentham similarly regards these rights as metaphysical nonsense.13

Izetbegović does not endorse the Marxist approach to law as the will of dominant class, reflection of political awareness, and political measures. In his view, law is objective, involved in politics and society and totally directed to this world. But at the same time, it includes norms and ethics. That is to say, law is a “bipolar unity” having both political and moral aspects.14

In describing the bipolar unity, he refers to the notions of “physical” and “moral”. In Marxism, there is no room for law since “law is the opposite of physics”. A physics-based understanding in which “certainty” is sought in every field does not recognize “should” but only “is”. Izetbegović expresses the relationship between state and law as follows: “The state and the government are the expression of physical power, the courts and law of moral power. To recognize that the moral power of the courts and law can balance the physical power of the state means to recognize the supremacy of an idea over things and mind over matter”.15

On the other hand, he reveals the objective of law in light of the findings of Hegel on Roman’s understanding of law. In Hegel’s view, Romans “introduced an extrinsic legal principle, free of conscience and heart”.16 Izetbegović found this expression “contradictory” and accordingly found out: Law is never extrinsic but it is inherently the very idea of justice that it strives for”.17

According to Izetbegović, the most significant function of law is to restrict the government with a view to protecting fundamental rights and freedoms. In his words, “Law steps in when and where government is subject to restriction.”18 Therefore, Izetbegović considers democracy as a regime which is bound by the principle of rule of law. Accordingly, democracy is not the unlimited governance of the majority but requires the restriction of the will of the majority by law.19

In addition, another requisite of the principle of rule of law is to comply with court decisions. In his speech delivered in 1990, Izetbegović denounced the former Yugoslav administrators for violating the Constitution as they refused to comply with an annulment judgment of the Constitutional Court. According to him, to enact a statute which is unconstitutional is not the same –since it may result from lack of knowledge– with to reinstate the original statute in spite of the Constitutional Court’s judgment finding it unconstitutional.”20

These words uttered by Izetbegović explain that, even in oppressive regimes, law and its implementers, namely courts, have the function of protecting those who are in the minority and seen as the other”. Law entails that those who are accepted as the other” be treated fairly. For this very reason, Izetbegović mentions of a very significant finding: “The touchstone of the legality of any social system is the way it treats its opponents and minorities.”21

4. Freedom: “what renders our lives meaningful”

The most significant manifestation and concrete appearance of justice and law is the fundamental rights and freedoms. The idea that human being has, merely by his very nature, rights and freedoms is the common heritage of the East and West. Mehmet Tahir Münif Pasha, who held office at several institutions such as the Court of Appeal and the Ministry of Education in the last period of the Ottoman Empire, finely expressed the universality of human rights in his book titled Philosophy of Law. He declared that “Natural law is what is inherent in the nature of human being. It cannot be said that a fact prevailing a thousand years ago must be changed today. In the same fashion, it cannot be said that something prevailing in Europe must be different in Asia, this is so because wisdom does not belong to a single territory or region; wisdom is everywhere.”22

Indeed, for instance, different philosophers discussed freedom of belief and thought from different stand points. In A Letter Concerning Toleration written by John Locke in 1685, he defended freedom of belief by making a reference to the Bible. He argued that he could not find in any part of the New Testament “that the Church of Christ should persecute others, and force others by fire and sword to embrace her faith and doctrine.”23

Alija argues that the liberty of opinion and belief is primarily the right to have a different opinion and a different belief”.24 In his lecture delivered in 1994, he justified the liberty of belief, opinion and expression by referring to the Quran. He replied the question We are in wartime. Why don’t you apply censorship? as follows: “I will never stand up for such bans after all that I have been through… It is not only a matter of principle but a matter of productivity, as well. I believe that bans and pressure have no role in convincing people”. He further reminded the person, asking him that question, of a verse in the Quran “There is no compulsion in religion” and accordingly stated that, if interpreted broadly, this would mean “there cannot be any pressure on beliefs and thoughts”.25

At this very point, considering the verse There is no compulsion in religion” reminded by Izetbegović, regard must be paid to the crucial link established by him between freedom and moral. In his point of view, what renders the human existence meaningful is the fact that man is bound and ordered to make a choice since all eternity. In other words, what lies at the root of existence is freedom.

Izetbegović expressed the way how human was obligated to freedom as follows: “From the moment of the expulsion from paradise, human could not rid himself of his freedom, nor escape from the drama, to be as innocent as an animal or an angel. He has to choose, to use his freedom, to be good or evil; in one word, to be man. This ability to choose, regardless of result, is the highest form of existence possible in the universe.”26

Alija defines the link between freedom called by him as “what renders our lives meaningful”27 and morality through a concise statement: “Dictatorship is immoral even when it prohibits sin, democracy is moral even when it allows it. Morality is inseparable from freedom. Only free conduct is moral conduct. By negating freedom, and thus the possibility of choice, a dictatorship contains in its premises the negation of morality. To that extent, regardless of all historical apparitions, dictatorship and religion are mutually exclusive.”28

Prof. Dr. Zühtü ARSLAN
The Constitutional Court of the Republic
of Turkey





1 Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, Translated by J. M. Anderson and E.H. Freund, (New York: Harper Books, 1956), p.45.

2 Ibid., p. 47.

3 A. Izetbegović, Konuşmalar (Speeches), 19th Edition, Translated by F. Altun and R. Ahmetoğlu, (İstanbul: Klasik Yayınları, 2015), p.253; and A. Izetbegović, Geleceği Yenilemek (To Renew the Future), Compiled by A. Öz, 3rd Edition, (İstanbul: Pınar Yayınları, 2018), p.123.

4 Izetbegović, Doğu Batı Arasında İslam (Islam between East and West), 3rd Edition, Translated by S. Şaban, (İstanbul: Klasik Yayınları, 2015), pp. 286- 287.

5 Izetbegović, Konuşmalar, p.49.

6 Izetbegović, Köle Olmayacağız (We will not be Slaves), Translated by R. Ademi, 4th Edition, (İstanbul, Fide Yayınları, 2018), p. 179.

7 Ibid., pp. 204-205.

8 Izetbegović, Inescapable Questions: Autobiographical Notes, (Leicester: Islamic Foundation, 2003), p. 174.

9 S. Zweig, Castellio Calvin’e Karşı ya da Bir Vicdan Zorbalığa Karşı (The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin), Translated by M. Topal and K. Koçak, (İstanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 2018), pp.144-147.

10 H.L.A. Hart, Law, Liberty and Morality, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), p.44.

11 Zweig, Castellio Calvin’e Karşı, p.173.

12 Izetbegović, Konuşmalar, p.75

13 Izetbegović, Doğu Batı Arasında İslam, p. 298. On the same issue, see also Z. Arslan, “Taking Rights Less Seriously: Postmodernism and Human Rights”, Res Publica, 5 (1999): 195-215, pp. 197-199.

14 Izetbegović, Doğu Batı Arasında İslam, p. 302.

15 Ibid., p. 305.

16 Izetbegović, Özgürlüğe Kaçışım: Zindandan Notlar (My Escape to Freedom, Notes from Prison), 21st Edition, Translated by H. T. Başoğlu, (İstanbul: Klasik Yayınları, 2015), p. 171.

17 Ibid., p. 172.

18 Izetbegović, Doğu Batı Arasında İslam, p. 299.

19 Izetbegović, Inescapable Questions: Autobiographical Notes, p. 68.

20 Izetbegović, Köle Olmayacağız, p. 14.

21 Izetbegović, Doğu Batı Arasında İslam, p. 299.

22 Münif Pasha, Hikmet-i Hukuk (Philosophy of Law), Compiled by G. Doğan, (Konya: Çizgi Kitabevi, 2016), § 2, p. 22.

23 J. Locke, Hoşgörü Üstüne Bir Mektup (A Letter Concerning Toleration), Translated by M. Yürüşen, (Ankara: Liberte, 2004), p. 36.

24 Izetbegović, Doğu Batı Arasında İslam, p. 299.

25 Izetbegović, Tarihe Tanıklığım (Me as a Witness to History), p. 62.

26 Izetbegović, Doğu Batı Arasında İslam, p. 77.

27 Izetbegović, Konuşmalar, p. 235.

28 Izetbegović, Özgürlüğe Kaçışım, p. 78.

29 Izetbegović, Köle Olmayacağız, p. 157; Izetbegović, Konuşmalar, pp. 71-72.

30 Izetbegović, Konuşmalar, p. 75.