Turkey’s anti-alcohol cocktail of intrigue, dodgy licenses and moral rectitude
I got a surprise yesterday at lunch at the restaurant round the corner from my office, where I’d agreed to do a book talk for half a dozen of the city’s journalists from Spain. The surprise was not so much that each of them graciously bought a copy of Dining with al-Qaeda. (This makes Spain my country of the week!) Rather, the shock was caused by what suddenly was not on the menu, in one of the touristic hubs of Istanbul.
“Beer?” asked a Spanish TV correspondent, newly arrived in Turkey from China.
“Maalesef (sorry),” said the waiter.
“Can’t do it.”
“But here …”
“It’s the new law.”
So the axe has fallen at last. Or has it? I could see the Spanish reporter looking at the menu in puzzlement, not yet used to the way that in Turkey, what you see is not always what you get. I think I’m accustomed to that after 25 years in Istanbul. When I read in the papers that parliament in Ankara is talking about new laws, for instance, I assume it will make little difference to my daily life, or at least not anytime soon. Yes, the new law said that alcohol can’t be sold within 100 meters of a mosque or educational building. But I thought there had been an ordinance like that since Ottoman times, and that it was evidently unenforceable.
This latest edict has got the bar and restaurant crowd running scared, however.
“I paced the distance myself,” said the son of the establishment’s owner. “We’re 70 meters from a mosque that way, and less than 100 meters on the other side.”
“Did you get a written order to stop serving drinks?”
“No, we saw it on TV. We’re trying to work out what to do … This will mean quite a loss.”
Indeed, it’s not just this restaurant under the Galata Tower that may suffer losses from the new law now awaiting approval by the president, and which also foresees a ban on shop sale of alcohol between 10pm and 6am and a complete ban on advertising (see Today’s Zaman on its acceptance by parliament on 24 May, here). It looks like being in Istanbul may — officially at least — really get a bit more bracing and clear-headed for everyone.
Pro-government newspapers disingenuously present the change as the adoption of either European rules or a 100-yard law that New York apparently has too (see Sabah, here); apparently the law will only apply for new licences. But just because the late leader Turgut Özal gave Istanbul a 212 dialing code two decades ago doesn’t make the two places the same. New York is a place designed on entirely different scale to the jumbled maze of inner Istanbul. Perhaps some spots in the historic central mahalles are more than 100 meters from a school, mosque, church or synagogue, but these look like pretty obscure dead angles on a map speedily drawn up by Turkey pundit Dov Friedman here.
I hardly ever drink anything at lunch, and I don’t want to be defined by alcohol consumption. But I’d certainly like to have the right to order a beer if I wanted in this multinational heart of Istanbul. (Postscript: I should add that many parts of Turkey today don’t have the European culture of drinking alcohol in public places, and most people in the country don’t drink it anyway – the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development says Turks drink one seventh to eighth the average intake of Americans and Europeans!) I also wondered too whether the new law was also the reason that my local supermarket recently ran down its stocks of wine, which new taxes and exploitative wineries have been making steadily more expensive in recent years.
“We’ll fix the problem”, the owner’s son said, in that vague tone of “it’ll all be fine” fatalism that plagues so many projects in the country. After all, the law’s regulations will probably exempt tourism areas. Turkey may be a religious-minded place, but there are limits to how much damage any government can do to business. Also, at a next-door-neighbour restaurant – still serving alcohol, but worried about the effects of the new ban – the head waiter thought that in fact my usual restaurant had never had a full alcohol licence, hence its owners’ extreme caution now.
Whatever the exact truth of this particular case, the anti-alcohol drive is unquestionably gathering momentum. I accepted a serving of my delicious foamy yoghurt-and-water ayran, the age-old Turkish refreshment that the prime minister recently announced is now Turkey’s national drink. This new title was a clear swipe at the heady old aniseed liquor, rakı, the lions’ milk beloved of republican founder Kemal Ataturk and the national drink for many other secular-minded Turks.
Devout Muslims, of course, believe alcohol is banned by the Qoran. But one of the endearing characteristics of the Turks is that many would take offense if someone said that occasional indulgence in it made them any less Muslim than the rigorously abstinent. Indeed, I told the group from Spain that when I wrote Dining with al-Qaeda I tried to minimize using the word “Islam”, preferring the more individual “Muslim”, since interpretations of what Islam means vary so much between persons and countries. But the arrival of the anti-alcohol campaign on our street corner may mean that a decade after the Justice and Development Party came to power, I may at last have to start conceding that the government does sometimes have an Islamic religious agenda. Indeed, justifying the government’s measure to his party on 28 May, Prime Minister Erdoğan said there was no question of banning alcohol but asked “why do people respect a law made by two drunkards [presumably, republican founders Ataturk and Inonu], but feel the need to reject a law ordered by religion?”
As my new Spanish book club and I philosophized over fine lentil soups, spicy kebabs and soft Turkish pide pizzas, however, I wondered again. Maybe this anti-alcohol gambit is just a clever political smoke screen to hide new Byzantine intrigues. Presidential elections are in the offing, a daring constitutional change is in the air, and the government’s Syria policy has provoked much unease. The opposition is gaining a little traction. At similar junctures in recent years, the prime minister has briefly distracted the national agenda and made gestures to his core constituency with “Islamic” initiatives about divorce, abortion, headscarves and the like. He seemed in similar form in support of the anti-alcohol campaign, waxing rhetorical about saving a generation from being one that “drinks day and night and wanders around in a haze.”
A couple of years ago, after all, the government banned outdoor tables from the pavements of Beyoğlu, despite scuffles with angry restaurant owners. Now, as if nothing had happened, the tables that don’t get in pedestrians’ way are back on the street, including outside my local restaurant. It’s democracy, Turkish style: the government shoves, the people push back and the state re-adjusts — but only so much. With small steps those at the top can keep advancing a cause, and ten years in power, after all, is a long time.
Other informative stories on this question can be found here, focused on the drop in Turkish beer companies’ outlook by Bloomberg’s Benjamin Harvey, and here, by the Wall Street Journal’s Emre Peker about reactions to the ban.
POSTSCRIPT: The restaurant mentioned at the top of this article did in fact finalise its alcohol licence a few months later – despite it’s proximity to a mosque – under a provision to encourage touristic establishments. So all’s well that ends well there, especially since it now serves draft Guinness. But farther from the touristic beat, I suspect that the new puritanism is still spreading.