Professor Dr. Darko Tanaskovic is a well-known Serbian scholar, translator, and diplomat. He was a professor at the University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Philology for over 30 years before retiring in 2018, even serving as the head of the Department of Oriental Languages, Literatures, and Cultures for a time. During his diplomatic career, which lasted from 1995 to 2018, he served as an Ambassador of Serbia (formerly of Yugoslavia) to Turkey, Azerbaijan, the Holy See, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, and to UNESCO. All of this makes for an impressive career, and while no one would bring this into question, including myself, one has to look critically at his work just as one would at anyone else’s.
Ever since Edward Said published his iconic book Orientalism, scholars have been diligent when dealing with the “Orient.” Said showed the dangers around approaching the “Orient” as a place on its own, as it represents a figment of Western imagination—a grouping of diverse peoples and cultures into one fictional entity. Unfortunately, Tanaskovic’s own approach to scholarship is grounded in this pre-Said approach, where a scholar becomes an expert on “the Orient,” which does not exist on its own. During his long and prolific career, Tanaskovic has written on everything “Oriental”; from his PhD dissertation and book on the Arabic language in Tunisia and works on the grammar of Arabic, through works on Islam and a Turkish–Serbian dictionary, which he co-authored, all the way to his recent works on the foreign policy of Turkey. A person with substantial intellectual abilities such as Tanaskovic can become an expert in different subjects. However, the problem is in the very “Orientalistic” approach Tanaskovic has in his scholarship, which brings us to his most recent book: Pusto tursko.
Pusto tursko is not Tanaskovic’s first book on Turkey’s foreign policy and politics. He previously published Neoosmanizam: doktrina i spoljnopoliticka praksa (English: Neo-Ottomanism: A Doctrine and Foreign Policy Practice). As the title suggests, the book deals with Turkey’s foreign policy, which the author, like many others, labels as “neo-Ottoman.” Since Pusto tursko is being promoted as a “collection of works written after the publication of Neoosmanizam” and is about the same subject, his previous work also has to be mentioned here.
Both Pusto tursko and Neoosmanizam have a quite evident tone of “Orientalism” about which Said warns us. In both books, Tanaskovic examines Turkey’s state sponsored ideology and foreign policy as something rather unique and distinct. He writes in Neoosmanizam, and implies in Pusto tursko, that Turkey’s foreign policy is imperialistic, as the county chooses to maintain relations with countries it has historical ties to because of the Ottoman Empire. Tanaskovic notes that there is a clear wish to bring back the Ottoman Empire in some form as Turkey promotes its culture and language in former territories, while also providing aid to countries in those territories in order to assert dominance over them. Tanaskovic builds logically sound arguments on these grounds, but what his approach in Neoosmanizam and Pusto tursko lacks is a very simple comparative analysis.
Tanaskovic’s arguments are built on the rather old “Orientalistic” approach that treats Turkey as the “Other.” This is clear as he wrote two books that deal with Turkey’s foreign policy, but never once compared its characteristics to that of other countries. For example, how is the fact that Turkey maintaining relations with countries with which it has historical ties proof of an imperialistic foreign policy while the United Kingdom’s efforts are not? When Turkey promotes its culture and language in former territories, this is perceived as a wish to reestablish the Ottoman Empire, but when France does the same thing in Africa it does not have a wish to reestablish its former colonial empire? How can Turkey’s development aid be an instrument of an imperialistic agenda while the development aid provided by the United Kingdom, France, or even that of the United States, Germany, and other countries is not? Looking at the country’s foreign policy, Turkey does the exact same things many other countries do, but its cardinal sin of not being “Western” prompts authors such as Tanaskovic to treat it differently than other countries.
However, Pusto tursko deals with many other topics in addition to Turkey’s foreign policy. Aside from the foreword by Miša Durkovic, the book has 21 chapters and every one of them deals with a different subject matter, including:
- Turkey’s approach to the First Balkan War and the First World War
- Turkey’s involvement in the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia
- The place of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the neo-Ottoman project
- Faults in the academic work of Ahmet Davutoğlu
- Neo-Ottomanism; “Erdoganism”
- Conflicts within the Justice and Development Party
- The 2016 Turkish coup d’état attempt and the newly created Democracy and National Unity Day
- The return of the trilateral cooperation between Bosnia, Serbia, and Turkey
- The conversion of Hagia Sophia back into a mosque
There are other chapters as well, such as “If Erdogan is the host in Syria, what is Assad?” and “Are the Balkans Ottoman Penelope?”. However, the above-mentioned general themes make up most of the book.
A Monograph or Collection of Essays?
Looking at all of these themes, it is difficult to classify Tanaskovic’s book. After all, it is next to impossible to classify it as a monograph since it is not a specialist work on a single subject. The author deals with anything and everything which caught his attention—from Turkish pilots in the NATO bombing all the way to memory politics in Turkey. Luckily, the book contains the reviewers’ notes which state that “the manuscript of the scientific monograph of Professor Dr. Darko Tanaskovic Pusto tursko is made up of 21 essay/chapters […] which deal with a wide array of phenomena regarding the Turkish–Islamic synthesis (or neo-Ottomanism in foreign policy) in contemporary Turkey.” While calling it a scientific monograph on the “Turkish–Islamic synthesis,” the reviewer himself treats the chapters like individual essays, which is understandable considering that each one represents a thematic whole that does not have much to do with the one preceding or succeeding it. Yet, judging by the notes, it remains unclear whether the book should be treated as a scientific monograph or a collection of essays.
I, for one, would argue that it should be treated as the latter, especially since a significant number of these essay/chapters do not cite any literature or sources, and some were even published in tabloid newspapers and web portals such as Blic and Sve o Srpskoj. It is hard to consider Pusto tursko a serious scientific monograph knowing that a significant portion of it was previously published in tabloids, but when analyzing parts of it, the lack of a scientific approach becomes even clearer.
Take for instance the essay (from this point onward the book will be treated as a collection of essays) on Turkey’s involvement in the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. The author, who served as the Ambassador of Yugoslavia to Turkey at the time, states that “President Süleyman Demirel, be it unofficially, told the author of these here lines at least twice that Turkey [...] could never support the breaching of the territorial integrity of other countries.” This is permissible if the author is writing for a wider audience, but there is no place for “I was told by X” when writing a serious academic work in historiography and political science, even if the author served as an ambassador. Similarly, the fact that the author refers to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan through the book simply as “Sultan” is permissible if the book was intended for a wider audience, but if the attempt was to write a monograph, which offers an objective scholarly analysis, there is no place for such labeling.
One can also look at other essays such as the one on Bosnia and Herzegovina within the larger framework of neo-Ottomanism, where Tanaskovic tries to lay out the “coordinates” of the doctrine stating in the first one of the nine coordinates that “neo-Ottomanism is real, and not a product of wrong interpretation [...] Neo-Ottomanism isn’t a prejudice nor a mystification, but an easily provable fact.” Just stating that something is an “an easily provable fact” in social sciences is problematic, but even more problematic is the fact that the author just accepted neo-Ottomanism as a “fact” and built his entire case on it without even once questioning the foundation he is building his work on.
The whole book shares this fundamental flaw. Tanaskovic took a claim he regards as true and laid out arguments in support of it without questioning the claim itself—he took a pseudoscientific approach in which a researcher just looks for additional arguments in support of his claim instead of testing his initial hypothesis. Rather than questioning the existence of neo-Ottomanism, as the scientific method requires, he took it as “a fact” and wrote Pusto tursko in order to support his “fact.” Even the name of the book itself points to this: there is no way to translate “pusto tursko” into English, it roughly means “everything Turkish” but with a rather negative connotation. After all, the book itself does not even have a main argument to it. Aside from claiming that neo-Ottomanism exists as an ideology and foreign policy, and listing completely different things in support of this, the book is a collection of different essays that deal with anything and everything which the book’s Serbian readership will find as “neo-Ottoman” or, in other words, “bad.” From Turkey’s support of the independence of Kosovo, through its role in the NATO bombing, all the way to Hagia Sophia being converted into a mosque, all these actions represent something negative for the Serbian people, whom already have a somewhat strained relationship with Turkey due to Serbia’s Ottoman past—a period which represents the “dark ages” in Serbian collective memory— and Turkey’s support of Kosovo’s independence—a very sore spot for Serbia.
Of course, the fact that the topics in question represent “something negative” does not mean that one should not write about them; in fact, precisely because they represent a source of tension one has to research and write about them. For this reason, Tanaskovic’s book represents an important source when analyzing the relations between Turkey and Serbia, Turkey’s foreign policy, and ideology in Turkey. The problem, however, is that the book is being treated as an outstanding work of scholarship that proves neo-Ottomanism, when in reality, it does not. Quite the opposite, rather than questioning and analyzing the claim of neo-Ottomanism, the book builds arguments in support of it. As such, although it can be a very important work and I for one will agree that it is one, it cannot be an outstanding scholarly work.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the essays written by Tanaskovic represent quality writing. They are well structured, have arguments, and offer the reader insight into various topics regarding Turkey today. His work on memory politics has merit. He points the reader toward potential future research, stating that “it would be interesting, for instance, to do a comparative analysis of the ways in which diplomatic missions of Turkey abroad organized manifestations to celebrate June 15 ” Tanaskovic's essays regarding the re-Islamization of Turkey are also quite informative. However, we must bear in mind that good as they might be, they do not represent a scholarly analysis. As one reviewer noted about the book, “it is a valuable reading matter for diplomats, politicians and businessmen who deal with the events in Turkey and in that part of the world”—yet not for scholars.
Tanaskovic has an impressive career, with years of practical experiences as a diplomat, as well as years of scholarly pursuits behind him. His knowledge of the subject definitely exceeds my own. And yet, be that as it may, it does not change the fact that Pusto tursko is not a scientific monograph. As shown in this review, the book’s methodology is flawed, and its approach to Turkey is grounded in Orientalism. The book represents a collection of essays on several topics, not a well-researched scientific monograph on a particular subject. The only reason it is being treated as such is the author’s career as a former diplomat and, currently, as a famous and influential Oriental scholar in Serbia. Tanaskovic’s work therefore automatically gains prominence. However, while an impressive career might be sufficient for adding weight to arguments when writing for a wider audience, it is not in academia, which recognizes this practice as an example of an argument from authority. The fact that someone has or had an impressive career does not mean that whatever they write on the subject is automatically true. There is no place for an argument from authority in science nor in political science; no amount of experience can turn an essay into a research paper. No amount of experience can turn Pusto tursko from a collection of essays into a scientific monograph, which it is currently being presented as to its readers.
That being said, Pusto tursko is a quality work, but of a different nature. The essays Tanaskovic presents in the book offer a lot of insight. Each one of them gives the reader a unique glimpse into the current state of affairs in Turkey. They accomplish this precisely because of the author’s background: they are so informative because Tanaskovic is a leading expert who also has firsthand experience due to his former role as ambassador to Turkey. They are valuable, but readers need to know that what they are reading is not an objective scientific analysis. Rather, the work represents a collection of well-written and thought through essays, and there is a big difference. Good as they might be, essays represent one way of looking at things—one among so many others. As such, the book should be treated as a source of insights by a prominent scholar and diplomat, not as a scientifically researched work on “an easily provable fact.” There are plenty of prominent scholars who disagree with Tanaskovic when it comes to the existence of neo-Ottomanism, but he leaves no room for their arguments in his writings. He simply acknowledges that they exist, and implies that they are all wrong, choosing ) to focus primarily on the work of Ahmet Davutoğlu and to ignore substantial literature on the subject—literature which refutes him.
As a result, even though it is valuable, Pusto tursko offers just one way of looking at a complex phenomenon, not an objective truth about Turkey’s use of neo-Ottomanism in its foreign policy as it is being promoted in Serbia. One should approach the book as one side of an ongoing debate, not as a work on “an easily provable fact” that is undisputedly true simply because the author is an expert. Hopefully, as any scholar ought to do, the author himself will acknowledge this and start engaging in this debate rather than promoting his view as the right one in his home country. It remains to be seen whether this will be the case.
Darko Tanaskovic, Pusto tursko, (Belgrade: Informatika AD, Institute of European Studies, & Institute for Political Networking, 2020).
Darko Tanaskovic, Neo-Ottomanism: A Doctrine and Foreign Policy Practice (Belgrade: Citizens’ Association “CIVIS”, 2013).
J. T., “‘Pusto tursko’ u Atrijumu Narodnog muzeja ['Pusto tursko' in the Atrium of the National Museum],” Danas, 26 February 2021, https://www.danas.rs/kultura/pusto-tursko-u-atrijumu-narodnog-muzeja/
Tanaskovic (2020), p. 167.
Tanaskovic (2020), pp. 178-9.
Tanaskovic (2020), pp. 45-6.
Tanaskovic (2020), p. 54.
Tanaskovic (2020), p. 90.
Tanaskovic (2020), p. 173.
Tanaskovic (2020), p. 70.