International American Council

International American Council
Middle East and North Africa

Alcohol, Islam and Turkey’s founding fathers

 

Diners raised a toast with beer and raki at a  restaurant in Istanbul.

 

LONDON — Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s president, was reported to be wavering over implementation of a controversial law restricting alcohol use, a measure seen by some as the kind of assault on personal freedom that has spurred a week of anti-government protests.

Turkey’s Hurriyet news site reported that he had told a delegation of tradespeople, who expressed concerns about the commercial impact of the law, that he would examine whether the restrictions contradicted the country’s Constitution.

The Turkish Parliament passed legislation on May 24 to ban advertising of alcohol and outlaw sales of alcoholic drinks between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., except in tourist zones. Alcohol sales near mosques and schools were also prohibited.

The government said the measures were aimed at protecting young people from the evils of alcohol, but secularist critics said they were part of a creeping Islamization on the part of the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Mr. Erdogan, the target of a wave of unrest against what is seen as his high-handed governing style, once advised Turks that they should eat grapes instead of drinking wine.

My colleague Andrew Finkel, a veteran observer of Turkish life, has suggested that alcohol consumption is scarcely a pressing issue in a country where less than one in five of the population drinks.

“Given such low levels of consumption, the government’s haste in passing anti-alcohol measures makes little sense,” he wrote at the Latitude blog.

The alcohol law nevertheless has its defenders, including Ceylan Ozbudak, a Turkish television presenter who said drinking was responsible for a majority of traffic accidents and a range of violent crimes in Turkey.

“Is the new regulation of sales of alcoholic drinks really about banning alcohol in Turkey for religious reasons?” she asked in an article for Al Arabiya, “Or is this just another excuse for the opposition to steal the public eye, and attack Erdogan?”

She said the measures were far from being an outright ban and were less strict than restrictions on alcohol consumption, not only in the Muslim world, but also in parts of Europe and the United States.

The controversy over the alcohol law might be viewed as another expression of the tensions between religion and secularism in the Turkish Republic. If so, it is nothing new.

A search of the New York Times archive turns up a gem from 1924 in which Louis Rich reported the decision of the Turkish government to end a one-year experiment in prohibition.

He wrote that the founders of the newly established Republic had originally imposed an alcohol ban in response to a booze epidemic caused by a flood of inferior American liquor in the years after World War I.

“Another factor tending toward intemperance,” he wrote, “was the large number of prescriptions issued to Mohammedans by Greek physicians for dietary purposes. Intoxication became so noticeable that the leaders of Turkey became alarmed.”

He noted, however, that prohibition not only deprived the government of a rich source of revenue but also was at odds with the secularism of the founding fathers. Their decision to repeal the ban reflected the belief that the state had no business to enforce an article of religious faith.

In a sentence that might resonate today among Turkey’s protesters, he wrote, “The Turks must be taught that religious and legal duties are not one and the same thing, that the former are entirely a matter of conscience and that the Government is not obligated to enforce them.”

 

By Harvey Morris

Source: The New York Times

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