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Critics Blame 'Islamic Agenda' for Sweeping Alcohol Restrictions in Turkey

  • Dorian Jones

People toast with beer and raki, a traditional Turkish aniseed-based alcoholic drink, at an Istanbul restaurant, Turkey, Mar. 16, 2013.
Turkey's parliament has passed new sweeping regulations controlling alcohol consumption, along with bans on alcohol advertising and its portrayal on television or film, and tighter controls on licenses. Critics are accusing the Islamic-rooted government of imposing its religious beliefs on the country. The government rejects the charge, claiming it's protecting the young.

Among the most controversial of the new restrictions is a ban on sales of alcohol within 110 yards of a mosque or a school. Many observers predict it will have major consequences in Istanbul -- which has 6,000 schools and mosques - especially in districts like Kadikoy, home to many bars and restaurants.

Restaurant owner Ferit Turgut supervises a beer delivery that could well be one of his last. His restaurant is a "meyhane," offering a myriad of small tasty dishes that you eat with beer, wine or Raki, a potent aniseed drink. It's a tradition that predates Turkey's 1923 secular republic. But, Turgut says, with a mosque at the bottom of the street, the future is bleak.

"I will have to close down but even before this law, with increasing taxes on alcohol, we were facing bankruptcy. They want to ban alcohol altogether, but drinking has been part of this country for centuries," he said, noting that a "whole cuisine" has been created for wine and Raki.

Raki, which was the favorite tipple of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular republic, was widely touted as the national drink until the pious Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that ayan, a yogurt drink, would take its place.

The new law bans any advertising, sponsorship or even portrayal of alcohol on television. There is also a curfew on shop sales between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The new law has provoked a storm of controversy. The prime minister is accused of pursuing a religious agenda, as alcohol is forbidden under the Islamic faith. But Erdogan claims health rather than religious concerns are driving the policy.

"There are such regulations everywhere in the world," he said, adding that the youth of a nation should be protected from bad habits. "We don't want a generation wandering around in a merry state day and night."

But Kadri Gursel, a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, said such an argument is disingenuous. He claimed under the Erdogan's decade-long rule, alcohol is being systematically driven out of Turkey.

"There is a fight in Turkey around alcohol. The areas that one can enjoy a glass of wine [are] shrinking constantly every year. Inner Anatolia [mainland Turkey] is a huge alcohol-free zone and the agenda is a religious conservative [one]. It has nothing to do with the fight against alcoholism, because there is no such a social problem of alcoholism in Turkey," said Gursel.

Turkish alcohol consumption is the lowest in Europe. Since Prime Minister Erdogan took office, the level of taxation on alcohol since has jumped from one of world's lowest to among the highest - at 100 percent. The government has warned of further hikes.

But Erdogan this week played down concerns about an outright ban, saying that people are free to drink at home.

Atilla Yesilada, an analyst with political consulting firm Global Source Partners, says electoral politics can explain the crackdown.

"[The] very controversial new law ... banning or restricting ... sales of alcohol [is the] tip of the iceberg,: Yesilada said. "As we approach the elections, we will see more legislation that appeals to conservative voters. And it's going to go on like that."

Observers warn that the ferocious debate over alcohol reveals how deeply polarized Turkey remains over the country's direction -- a polarization that is only expected to deepen with the approach of elections next year.