Why is Erdoğan doing all of this?
It is difficult to impose a religiously based system of morality on urbanized, industrial and post-industrial societies. The U.S. showed in the 1920s that criminalizing alcohol only pushes it underground, spawns a criminal class and fuels prostitution and political corruption.
Neither is this an exclusively Western phenomenon. Iran today has a prostitution problem, an alcohol problem and a drug problem as those who follow these things know.
In 2008 General Reza Zarei, Tehran’s chief of police, who was also in charge of the vice squad, was arrested after he was caught in a brothel with six prostitutes.
Social problems relating to sexual frustration reached such proportions in the past in that country that the authorities had to resort to the odd practice of “Nikah mut’ah” also known as “Sigheh.” This is nothing but religiously sanctioned prostitution by means of short term marriages based on a payment (dowry) to the “temporary wife.”
Those who have had occasion to visit Gulf States and make some “influential friends” while there also know just how “innocent” these fundamentalist Sunni countries are with respect to vice. In all these Islamic countries, the rule is “keep it out of the public eye.”
This is institutionalized hypocrisy, of course, and you can get away with it in countries ran with an iron fist, where morality is imposed by the religious policemen known as “Basiji” or “Muttawah.”
It is not clear if this is what Prime Minister Erdoğan has a hankering for. His latest statements indicate that he is prepared to go as far as he can to push in terms of banning alcohol and preventing extramarital relations among young people, even if they are eligible to vote and hold public office.
He is doing this in the name of protecting youth, but does the youth in this country need such protection? The Turkish youth are not among the world’s great consumers of alcohol as many studies show. This does not mean they do not drink, but you will rarely see the kind of scenes you see in some Western capitals on Friday nights.
As for extramarital sex, there is much less of a stigma attached to this today compared to the past. But Turkey is hardly a country that has an urban teenage pregnancy problem, the way the U.S. has today for example.
This is in fact, a rural issue for Turkey, where under-aged girls are secretly married off (read that as “sold off”) to older men, often relatives, by an imam because the law of the land proscribes this. There is also the problem of raped girls being forced to marry their rapists. Erdoğan has had very little to say about these to date.
A recent study by Professor Ersin Kalaycıoğlu and Professor Ali Çarkoğlu shows the majority of Turks believe couples should be married if they want to have children. Neither is this prevalent attitude based on religious morality alone. To put it in another way, the Turkish youth does not have a problem when it comes to rampant sex or uncontrolled consumption of alcohol.
So why is Erdoğan on this “jihad” against alcohol and sex? The simple answer has to be that he is trying to impose his world view on society by using these issues, and his instrument is the ballot box. Again we have the “majoritarian/pluralist” dichotomy here.
Erdoğan is simple pushing for all that he wants to see in Turkey, regardless of how much this agitates society, because he expects a strong turnout for his party in upcoming elections, starting with local elections early next year. He plans to turn the table on his critics in this way and push further with his Islamic agenda.
The question, however, is how far can you bring this system to a socially diverse country like Turkey. Based on historic and sociological precedents, the answer is that there are limits to how far he can push for this. But he can cause a lot of social unrest in trying to do so and we see evidence of this already.
This is not how responsible leaders who claim to respect democracy and human rights should behave.