Tempest in a beer can

Tempest in a beer can

The 10-minute news clip on daily Hürriyet’s website was both amusing and educational in shedding light on the mental map of Turkey’s new majority. The clip opens with the news that a private university in Istanbul’s devout Eyüp district, apparently under pressure from local authorities, banned beer sales at a rock festival on its campus. Eyüp, according to a local shop owner, was “Istanbul’s Medina,” and according to the local mufti, it was “Turkey’s Medina.”

A few locals interviewed by the TV crew said they don’t want alcohol in this “very sensitive neighborhood.” A young Iraqi said “alcohol may ruin the festival.” Then an interview with the mufti, Muammer Ayan, quoted the Islamic authority as saying that “in Islam sinning or avoiding sin is strictly a matter between a person and God.” But then the mufti said such behavior (serving beer) in “Turkey’s Medina” was not appropriate.

“I am grateful to the people of Eyüp for caring so much about my spiritual life,” a young festival attendee said with a sad grin on his face. “But is it not ironic that it is also the people of Eyüp who sell beer on shopping carts to cater for the festival crowd?”

As always, the controversy over alcohol is not about alcohol. One of the local activists who protested both the festival and beer said: “We are against alcohol sales both inside and outside the campus. We are against Western culture and this lifestyle!” He was a speaker for the “Great Anatolian Youth Initiative.” What an impressive name!

Then the fun begins. Both the festival attendees who want their beer and the local activists who oppose other people’s “right to sin” get involved in an argument in front of the camera. One activist claimed that “condoms were being sold at the campus.” “What does this have to do with beer?” someone asked. Another activist explained: “People of this culture don’t care about other people, they don’t care about women being raped in Iraq!” “How do you know? I do care,” someone objected. And a pro-beer youth tried to find a compromise: “My father is a worker and he goes to the mosque.” But he got his share from an anti-beer activist: “If your father goes to the mosque why does he allow you to come here?” “Why should he not?” “You drink beer.” “So what?” “How do we know you won’t make noise in the evening?” “You should complain if I do. I have been drinking since 18 and I don’t have a criminal record.”

The clip continues with scenes in which the anti-beer demonstrators chant slogans including “God is great!” “This is a plot of the Free Masons!” and “This is an insult to our religion!” The activists who shout “We are against Western culture” are seen in their fancy jeans and (probably imitation) T-shirts all featuring well-known Western brands.

It was intriguing why such observant crowds who are sensitive about rape in Iraq have never ever demonstrated against their own government’s cooperation with the allied forces that invaded Iraq. But it is even more intriguing why avoiding sin themselves does not satisfy these faithful Muslims. Why do they feel offended when other people sin? Why do they assume all festival attendees are Muslim? Can there not be atheists, theists, agnostics and non-Muslim monotheists among them? Do they have to be Muslim just because they are Turkish?

Alcohol is the perfect litmus test to see whether most devout Muslims think the Quran tells them to avoid evil and do good or whether they think their holy book tells them to command others to avoid evil and do good.