Alcohol Apartheid: The New Turkish Laws That Segregate Drinkers

Istanbul's religious teetotalers, newly powerful with Islamism's rise, want to separate out the sinners.

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A bartender serves a beer in Istanbul. (Reuters)

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which concludes August 18, can be a time of heightened friction in Istanbul, when the beliefs of the pious clash with the lifestyle preferences of secular-minded Turks. This year, Ramadan has been marked by a secularist outcry over recent efforts to restrict the consumption of alcohol.

Tension erupted over a two-day international rock concert at Istanbul Bilgi University in mid-July that kicked off just before Ramadan began. Just half an hour before the concert an alcohol ban was enforced by University authorities under pressure from the Islamist-rooted ruling AK Party. Ironically the "One Love" concert was sponsored by the country's largest beer producer, but the thousands of parched rockers had to make do with lemonade and water instead.

The decision provoked an uproar. "This is not a battle about alcohol, but about freedom" wrote a leading columnist, Hasan Cemal, in the Milliyet newspaper on July 17. A nationwide debate ensued during the weeks of Ramadan over the direction of the country, and, in particular, its largest city, Istanbul.

The concert was held in the Eyup District of the city, which has a large religious community where Ramadan is strictly observed. The local authorities, dominated by the AK Party, defended the ban, citing the religious sensitivities of the locals. Yet in reality, local sensitivities in Eyup seem mixed.

"People in the neighborhood organized a petition to stop alcohol being sold at the concert," said a 40-year-old shopkeeper, who is fasting. "But I didn't sign it. Because I don't believe you should interfere in other people's lives." A woman dressed in religious garb interjected, "This is a predominantly Muslim area. So the ban was necessary out of respect for us."

Representatives of the pro-secular main opposition People's Republican Party (CHP) in the Eyup District, sees the alcohol ban at the concert as part of a wider policy extending beyond Ramadan. The objective is to turn Eyup into a "dry" neighborhood, citing the closing down of the few remaining alcohol outlets. "Neighborhood pressure by religious people and the religiously controlled local authority are having a growing effect on secular locals," warned Inan Celiker a local CHP party official. "It's pushing people to drink illegally in the back of shops."

"Neighborhood pressure," a phrase coined by one of the country's leading sociologists, Serif Mardin, is becoming a major factor in the civic debate. Mardin maintains that more than any deliberate policy by the Islamic-oriented government, pressure in areas where the majority are pious, forces secular people to adopt a more religious way of life.

The devout Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has waded into the controversy. "They want all our youth to be alcoholics. What on earth is this? I told the university authorities we were upset over the festival. For Allah's sake, how can this occur? Can anyone allow alcohol to be sold on a school campus? Will the student go there to get drunk on alcohol or find knowledge?" Erdogan declared during a late July television interview.

Following that verbal broadside, Istanbul Bilgi University authorities announced that alcohol would no longer be served at future concerts on campus.

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Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.

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