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Turkey's Secular Backlash

Written by Robert Ellis

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A recent announcement on Ankara's subway called on passengers to "act in line with moral codes." The reaction was a kissing protest – met with riot police and a counter-demonstration by a conservative group, who attacked the protestors.

Champagne corks are not popping in Turkey. On the contrary, Turkey took one more step on May 24 towards becoming an Islamic republic. In the early hours of the morning, Turkey's governing AKP [Justice and Development Party] took advantage of its parliamentary majority to rush through Parliament a bill which will impose severe restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol in Turkey.

However, this comes as no surprise: Prime Minister Erdogan has made clear his personal dislike of alcohol, and recommended that people eat fruit instead of drinking it.

At the Global Alcohol Symposium held in Istanbul in April, Erdogan warned that his government would introduce new measures to reduce alcohol consumption. He also stated that, as Turkey does not have any oil wells, the Special Consumption Tax on alcohol is Turkey's most important source of income.

The Prime Minister also claimed that he was mandated by Article 58 of the Constitution to protect the youth from alcoholism. Article 58 states that the state shall take measures to ensure the training and development of the youth in the light of contemporary science, and in line with the principles and reforms of Turkey's first president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The article also states that the state shall take necessary measures to protect the youth from addiction to alcohol, drugs, crime as well as gambling and similar vices -- and ignorance.

In view of the not especially scientific shift that teaching creationism is on the way in at Turkish schools, and that the teaching of Atatürk's principles is on the way out, Erdogan's reference to the Constitution is characteristically selective.

Since 2003, a year after the AKP came to power, the consumer price index has risen 132%, while the prices of alcoholic beverages have risen 346%. This can also be seen in the present cost of beer, wine and spirits. For example, at the grocer's a bottle (50 cl.) of the popular Efes beer costs $2.25, Turkish table wine from $8 - $11 and a better Turkish wine from $16 upwards. A bottle of raki (70 cl.), the Turkish version of Greek ouzo or French absinthe, is $30. Imported wine and spirits cost considerably more. Consequently, the flourishing Turkish wine industry with its 7,000 years of history is struggling to survive.

This heavy taxation has already had an effect: the Istanbul think tank BETAM has estimated that alcohol consumption fell by a third from 2003-2008. According to one survey, only around 6 percent of Turkish households consume alcohol; another found that 83 percent of Turkish adults never drink alcohol. Perhaps it would be a shot in the dark to claim that much of the Turkish government's opposition is to be found among the 17 percent who do. Interestingly, only 193 of the AKP's 327 parliamentary deputies voted for the new law.

Among the new restrictions that have been imposed is a ban on the retail sale of alcohol between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and there will be no new licenses for the sale of alcohol within 100 metres of a school or mosque. Since Erdogan came to power, 17,000 new mosques have been built -- there are now 93,000 -- and there are 67,000 schools.

Last year Erdogan declared it his intention to raise a religious generation in Turkey, so this latest legislation is in harmony with his views. There has also been a significant increase in the budget allocated to the Religious Affairs Directorate [Diyanet], which now exceeds that of most other ministries.

There is also a ban on the advertising and promotion of alcoholic beverages; penalties for violations of this ban range between $2,700 and $107,000. Cigarette smoking is already blurred out on Turkish television and the same will happen to alcohol consumption. AKP deputy Cevdet Erdöl, chairman of the parliament's Health Commission, plans to go one step further and cut these scenes out altogether. There go Cheers, Casablanca and most westerns.

Critics have accused the government of turning the clock back to the time of Ottoman Sultan Murat IV, who banned tobacco, alcohol and even coffee. The president of the Constitutional Court, Hasim Kilic, has warned against interference in people's different lifestyles, but at a parliamentary group meeting Erdogan denied that the new regulations constituted intervention into anyone's identity, ideology or lifestyle. Erdogan, however, revealed his true intentions when he said that this law was not made by two drunkards (with a possible allusion to Atatürk and former President Inönü) but according to the dictates of religion.

Last month Prime Minister Erdogan declared that ayran (yogurt with water) was Turkey's national drink, but Turkey's Traditional Alcoholic Beverage Producers Association (GISDER) has applied to the EU's Codex Commission to patent raki as Turkey's national drink. The question is: who will win?

There was a recent announcement on the Ankara subway, calling on passengers to "act in line with moral codes." The reaction, similar to the clashes between urban activists and police over the future of Istanbul's Gezi Park in Taksim, was a kissing protest -- met by riot police and a counter-demonstration from a conservative group, who attacked the protestors.

Although there is talk of a "Turkish Spring," this is probably premature because of the strength of Erdogan's grassroots support. However, the Prime Minister's growing intolerance does not augur well for the future of Turkish democracy.

Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.

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