How free will alcohol be in the ‘New Turkey?’

How free will alcohol be in the ‘New Turkey?’

In the past few weeks, Turkey has had two controversies relating to alcoholic beverages. First, the Institute for Regulating the Tobacco and Alcohol Market, an official body, released a ruling which banned traditional “New Year’s baskets” from including any alcoholic beverages. These baskets are either sold in markets, or distributed by companies as gifts, as a means to celebrate New Year’s. And they traditionally include a bottle of wine, whiskey or some other alcoholic drink, for many people who celebrate New Year’s also like to drink. But now these packages will include only soda, lemonade or juice, becoming “halal New Year’s baskets,” as the media jokingly wrote.

The second controversy was in Adana, the southern city which hosts a traditional “World Rakı Festival” every December (rakı is Turkey’s traditional alcoholic beverage). This year, however, the Ankara-appointed governor of the city, Mustafa Büyük, called the organizers and “urged” them not to have the festival. The mayor of the city, who is not appointed by the center but elected by the people, opposed the governor on this issue and said, “It is the people’s private lives, to which we cannot interfere.” The mayor, Hüseyin Sözlü, is from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is not known for liberalism, but on this issue he took a more liberal line than the governor.

Yet the governor stood firm in his “urge.” Finally, the organizers of the festival found the solution in changing the name of the event. From now on, it will be called not the “World Rakı Festival” but the “Adana Kebab and Turnip Festival.”

None of this means that alcohol is banned in Turkey and the country has become “dry.” One can easily buy alcohol in supermarkets, and there are plenty of alcohol-serving restaurants and bars in most cities. It is also hard to imagine a wholesale ban on alcohol in Turkey, which would, at the very least, damage the tourism industry which the government cares about.  

Yet still, the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) has a notable motivation on this issue, which is clearly towards marginalizing alcohol as much as possible. The much-controversial law they passed in 2013 had banned all alcohol advertisements and also all public events that promoted alcohol. The party is also known for bringing astronomical taxes on alcoholic beverages, making them practically a luxury. 

Not too surprisingly, all this raises questions and worries about the “Islamization” of Turkish society. Banning alcohol and other vices, as defined by conservative understandings of Islam, has been the standard goal of Islamist movements, which aim at the “Islamization” of societies in a top-down fashion (although they rather create, in my view, only top-down hypocritization). And despite the fact the AKP is not an explicitly Islamist party, its implicit Islamism is growingly visible. 

That is why the future of the freedom of not just alcohol but the entire “secular lifestyle” will be a litmus test for the AKP and its much-hailed “New Turkey.” If the trend of the past two years continues, with more bans on what the AKP cadres consider “immoral,” then it will be a major pity. It will not only make the more secular citizens more disillusioned and reactionary, deepening Turkey’s social polarization. It will also imply that the most liberal-leaning experiment with political Islam so far, the experiment of the AKP, cannot refrain from authoritarianism when it feels that it has enough power to impose its values.