“A good citizen needs to be good moralist who would stay out of bad habits, such as cigarettes and alcohol,” said Ali Şükrü Bey, the deputy of Trabzon in 1920, as he outlined the reasons for urging the newly founded Turkish Grand National Assembly to prohibit alcohol as one of its first acts. Aside from the Islamic law that prohibited alcohol, he said that alcohol sales were helping “Greeks and Armenians” get richer because those two minorities controlled the drinks trade. After Ali Şükrü, Nuri Bey of Bolu took the rostrum to support his colleague, saying that alcohol had been banned for centuries in Anatolia but lately, “due to neglect,” everyone in the empire had taken to the bottle, “including women.”
The law proposal ended with a tie and eventually passed with one vote in favour of the ban on September 14, 1920. It was a tough one: it urged all alcoholic drinks to be exported to non-Muslims or destroyed within 2 months, slapped heavy fines or a jail sentence to those who continued to use, produce and sell alcoholic drinks and threatened to strip civil servants of their position if they disobeyed.
Turkey’s founder Kemal Atatürk, absent during the sitting, was furious. Heedlessly continuing his rakı-drinking tables where battle strategies and republican policies were made, he became the first famous figure to launch a not-so-civil disobedience to the prohibition.
According to Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar (modern Turkey’s first gay deputy and a great satirical writer), the ban increased the consumption of alcohol as the production of bootleg wine and rakı soared. When the Parliament eventually ended the ban in 1924 – a year after the declaration of the Turkish Republic - conservative papers complained that this would only serve to enrich the (remaining) Greeks who owned the taverns of Istanbul. So the exploitation of religion traditionally goes hand in hand with rampant chauvinism, misguided nationalism and resentment of minorities.
The 1920 Men-i Müskirat Kanunu, as the law is called in Turkish, is an anecdote President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan loves to recount, tweaking the events to suit his own agenda. “The single-party rule in Turkey ended this ban,” he said at a conference organized by Yeşilay (Green Crescent), a century-old Turkish NGO that fights smoking, alcohol, and drugs in 2013. “Under the guise of modernization, the government [in the 1930s and 40s] attempted to promote alcohol. There were even efforts to present beer as the national drink though our national drink is ayran [watered-down yogurt].”
Though it is difficult to know just what the national drink of Turkey is - between the equal claims of ayran, the Pamukesque boza and grape’s alternative şıra - credible research shows us that wine, beer and rakı have found their way to the Turkish tables way before “efforts of modernization.” Those tables doubtlessly included the sumptuous ones in the Ottoman palaces as miniatures seem to prove. Neo-Ottomans love to argue that there was no drinking at the palace until Mahmut II, a modernist with a taste for French champagne, but the presence of a 16th-century sultan known as Selim, the Drunkard (the least suitable of Suleiman the Magnificent’s sons to rule, but who nevertheless reigned for eight years) seems to prove that alcohol – and weed - was used and abused at the palace.
The Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) two-decades of battle with alcohol has been fought on many fronts from alcohol advertisement regulations to ever-increasing taxes, from placement of wines in supermarket shelves to vineyard tours. Laws and regulations sought to make alcohol impossible to advertise and promote, expensive to drink and unprofitable to sell. In 2002, the AKP adopted the Special Consumption Tax (ÖTV), which raised the tax on alcoholic beverages from 18% (the standard VAT rate) to an astounding 48% - and kept increasing it over the years. In 2009, it imposed limitations on alcohol advertisements that made it practically impossible to advertise wine, beer, or rakı and four years later, it banned alcohol advertisements altogether.
The law enacted in 2013 also prevents sports teams from using the names of alcoholic drinks in their names, so the Turkish basketball team Efes Pilsen (after Turkey's most popular beer) changed its name to Anadolu Efes. Supermarkets are forced to isolate their alcoholic drinks sections and close them down after 22.00; markets were no longer authorized to put alcoholic drinks at their New Year gift packs. Other restrictionsinclude a ban on wine-tasting for free - though Turkey’s mushrooming vineyards continue to skirt it.
Alcohol licenses for bars and restaurants have become more costly and more difficult. Police controls of “drinking in public space” have become more frequent, particularly in municipalities controlled by the AKP. Many taverns and pubs have moved to rooftop terraces, rather than have tables on the street pavements, Mediterranean-style.
So, unsurprisingly, the government’s move to stop alcohol sales in markets during the 17-day lockdown sparked a wide reaction – even from people who openly said that they do not consume alcohol during Ramadan out of respect for those who fast. The link between preventing take-away alcohol and controlling the spread of the pandemic remained elusive for most, while still others questioned the way that the ban was made - with just a regulation without a legal basis. Ankara Bar Association has taken the matter to the Council of State for legal irregularity.
Finally, Turkey’s Platform for Liquor Stores said that the ban was lifted and they would remain open throughout. Then local governors announced that the ban was still in effect. In my downtown İzmir neighborhood, most of the small liquor stores go on with business as usual over lockdown weekends and a young guy with beer bottles walked out of one shop right under my window Friday. A day before the lockdown, alcohol sales and calls for civil disobedience against the ban peaked.
The “ban” showed Turkey’s fault lines and post-truths on alcohol once more. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu’s remarks on NTV that other countries have adopted similar measures rang false. Though many countries have closed down bars, took measures against drinking alcohol in public places or limited the selling hours of alcohol in the markets, a total ban on takeaway alcohol, to be consumed at home, is rare. South Africa and Zimbabwe have done it, but certainly not France and Germany, as Soylu claimed to be countries that had adopted similar measures.
Binnaz Toprak, a former deputy and the author of a widely quoted book on “Being Different in Turkey,” told Medyascope that she worried that this may be the harbinger of a “permanent ban” in alcohol sales during Ramadans to come. Main opposition CHP has called it an intervention in the secular lifestyle, as there was no scientific reason to impose a 17-day ban on alcohol sales.
As one side saw the footsteps of “Shariat” in the ban, the conservative pundits went to the other extreme - pretending that the opposition to the ban was the work of a handful of noisy drunkards too fond of the bottle to care for public health. “We worry about deaths and they worry about drinks,” wrote ultra-Islamist Yeni Akit’s Editor in Chief Ali Karahasanoğlu. Tugçe Kazaz, a model-turned-AKP groupie, tweeted, “Just because they will be forced to remain sober for 17 days, they cry Shariat.”