A controversy over alcohol has been making the Turkish news since last weekend. A rock festival called “One Love” was organized in an area next to Istanbul Bilgi University’s santralistanbul campus, and the main sponsor was Efes, Turkey’s leading beer brand. Lots of young people, therefore, were expected to come, roll with the music and enjoy some beer.
Many young people came indeed. But they realized that they could not drink beer, for the organizers had decided to go “dry” because of pressure from the authorities. The pressure came from a larger camp, though: Days before the event, certain Islamic newspapers had begun criticizing the “beer festival” as an insult against the Eyüp Sultan Mosque, probably the most sacred Islamic spot in Istanbul. Since the concert was within Eyüp Municipality’s boundaries, and the time was a little before Ramadan, these “sensitive Muslims” of Turkey were disturbed. (The most agitated among them were disturbed enough to come to the concert area and protest against “alcohol drinkers” who actually found the booze thanks to local street vendors.)
In the face of all this, I wrote a column in Turkish, explaining my stance. It was wrong to ban alcohol at the concert, I argued, and “One Love” should be a place where people drink freely in the years ahead. I also noted that there was at least a kilometer between the Eyüp Mosque and the concert area, and thus it was absurd to see this as an “insult to the mosque.”
However, I also noted something else. Laws banning and regulating “public intoxication” are not unheard of in free countries, such as the United States. In fact, I explained, U.S. laws are often stricter than Turkey’s when it comes to alcohol consumption.
For example, in America, the drinking age is 21 and it is seriously checked. You can’t enter a bar without showing your date of birth on your ID. In Turkey, however, a 16-year old can easily walk into a bar in Istanbul, or elsewhere, and “get wasted.”
Similarly, in America, drinking in public is strictly regulated. One cannot simply drink on the street or in a park, and not even walk around with a visible glass of wine or bottle of beer. In Turkey, however, when the municipality of Afyon, a Central Anatolian province, tried to bring in exactly the same regulations on alcohol, the secular media reacted with the usual shariah-is-coming hype.
In the United States, there are even “blue laws” that ban alcohol sales on Sundays, which is the Christian Sabbath. A theoretical parallel to that would be banning alcohol sales in Ramadan – something that I don’t advocate, just speculate.
In short, while I see “the freedom to sin” as the inviolable right of every human being, the right to enjoy booze in public is subject to limitations even in some of the world’s freest countries. In Turkey, too, therefore, we have to develop our own regulations through deliberation and consensus.
There are two mutually opposing camps in Turkey who would disagree with that. One is the camp of the Islamists and Islamo-nationalists, who simply wish to impose their own notion of morality on each and every member of “our nation.” The other camp is the hardcore secularists, who see any regulation on alcohol as the evidence of a drift toward a “shariah state.”
The majority is in the middle, however. They understand that Turkey is a country in which one can choose to go the mosque or go to the bar, and they think that both sides should respect the other’s way of life.