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Turkey's late-night alcohol ban sends mixed signals

May 24, 2013 at 1:47 PM   |   Comments

ANKARA, Turkey, May 24 (UPI) -- As widely expected, Turkey's ban on late-night alcohol sales sent mixed signals about its perceived link to the politics of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Western ally Erdogan, regarded as the kingpin in current calculations on options available to the West in Syria and the future of postwar Iraq, is a modernist reformer poised diametrically opposite the modernism espoused by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey.

Ataturk fashioned the 1920s Turkey on the ashes of the Ottoman empire in the style of a westward-looking modern secular republic. He crushed the Muslim clergy, romanized the Turkish language and discouraged traditional attire in favor of Western suit and tie.

Erdogan's adherents see "Ataturkism" in steady retreat but are in no rush to change the constitution's secular vows.

Just as EU states can pretend to be Christian while steeped largely in agnosticism, materialism and secularism, their argument goes, so can Turkey carry on the pretense of being faithful to Ataturk while slowly trying to recover the country's Muslim heritage of the Ottoman period from 1299-1923.

The government-led strategy of reviving Ottoman glory has manifested itself in different ways, not always with success. Turkey's military aid to Syrian opposition has dashed Erdogan's hopes of winning acceptance as the leader of a modernist Islamic world. Relations with Iraq are tense as Ankara juggles its "good" and "bad" Kurds -- those it can work with in northern Iraq's autonomous oil region and those it cannot tolerate because they want self-rule or separation in eastern Turkey.

Alcohol is rated as one of the ills introduced by Ataturk's secularism and therefore targeted. That argument isn't fact-based, however. Breweries and wineries run by Christian subjects thrived under the Ottoman court, its major consumer, in the same way as Muslim Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are today's major consumers of alcohol, especially hard liquor, in the region.

Officials hope the partial ban will cut down on alcohol abuse. Alcohol consumption among Turkey's young is exacerbated by unregulated trafficking in the bootlegged variety that killed five Russian tourists in 2011. This week four Turkish nationals each received 90 years in prison for serving alcohol to a group of Russian tourists, killing five of them.

High taxation on alcohol boosted the underground bootlegging industry and drew many unemployed youth into criminal gangs dealing in fake alcohol.

Turkish Statistics Institute data suggest jobless rate among Turkey's youth is worse than in most neighboring countries, driving many to petty crimes.

Despite the compelling evidence of alcohol abuse and its effect on the economy, critics say Erdogan's anti-alcohol move is also part of a wider aim of steering the country away from "westoxication" and toward an idealized post-Ataturk society of conservative Muslim values built on nostalgia. Opposition lawmaker Musa Cam accused Erdogan of trying to "redesign" Turkish society.

Turkey's hospitality and tourism industry has warned restricted alcohol sale will hurt tourism, a major earner.

Erdogan fanned popular sentiment by pitting ayran, a non-alcoholic yogurt drink, against raki, a hard alcoholic beverage similar to pastis, ouzo, sambuca or arak. Both are considered Turkey's national drinks but Erdogan wants Turks to switch to ayran.

Critics say the alcohol ban, although partial and similar to official curbs practiced in northern Europe, will discourage overseas tourism and strengthen European arguments against admitting Turkey into the European Union for being "culturally different."

Some Erdogan loyalists say they're no longer bothered about the European Union while it goes through one eurozone crisis after another.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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