“They are drinking until they sneeze. We don’t say anything,” was how Erdoğan, back in 2011 as then the prime minister, explained his conservative establishment’s supposed tolerance towards a secular lifestyle. In the same speech, he mentioned that the AKP was a conservative party, but at the same time a democratic one. Erdoğan claimed his party was bound by international principles of freedom. Those were the years when Erdoğan still claimed to be a democrat.

Quickly following this statement of professed tolerance, the mainstream narrative shifted, and was based around Erdogan’s promise of raising a “religious and revengeful new generation.” Fast forward to December 2019, and Erdogan’s core message is that Islam is not “a religion for certain weeks, certain places, but is at the very center of life.” He declared: “We will live in accordance with the rules and principles of Islam.”

Led by Erdoğan, the AKP has been reshaping the secular life of Turks for the last 17 years, bit by bit. The education system has been Islamised, and for symbolic purposes, an additional salaah for Thursday evening has been introduced in which imams all over Turkey sign loudly to remind people of the upcoming Muslim holy day, Friday. The government made sure prayer rooms have been installed in offices, schools, airports, and pretty much everywhere they could fit. The budget of the religious affairs division has been rising. The head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs is being driven around in a stylish Mercedes Benz. 

It has been harder for restaurants to obtain the necessary licenses to sell alcohol. In Ankara, restaurants that sell alcohol were forced to hire extra security personnel and buy metal detectors. The restaurants in Istanbul’s famous Taksim area were forced to move their tables that used to sit on the street inside, which killed a lot of their business.

The Turkish tourism hub preferred by German tourists, Antalya, had been organizing Oktoberfest for years before the AKP won the local elections there back in 2014. One of the first measures of the AKP mayor was to abolish the “beer drinking” festival.

The latest in the line of religiously-inspired incidents happened in Adana, a southern Turkish city with a unique character whose people are proud of their city, their type of kabab and their Adana ways. 

The people of Adana organize an annual Rakı fest on the second week of December each year, with residents gathering in restaurants around the big clock of Adana, drinking rakı and eating kebab. People in Adana recall this festival as a very old one, where even their great-grandparents used to gather around the clock, drink rakı and enjoy themselves.

In 2016, the festival was banned by the governorate for alleged security reasons. Then the name of the festival was changed to Kebab and Turnip Juice Fest, so that the emphasis would be moved away from the alcoholic rakı. Although rakı was not mentioned in the name of the festival, traditional rakı drinking remained. This year, the governorate of Adana was decisive in preventing the festival altogether. The festival did not have an official organization as it was organized through social networks, and through an agreement between the restaurants and the people. 

On December 14, when the festival was to take place, the police started to fill the streets of central Adana, where most restaurants are located. Police ordered the restaurants to move their tables from their patios, and the restaurants’ speakers were removed to prevent music. 

Emre, a young participant in the festival, told me he and his friends first went to Cigerci Mehmet Usta, next to the famous clock tower, and found the famous restaurant to be closed. They asked for the reason and were told that the police informed the owners that keeping the restaurant open carried a risk of being fined 60,000 lira for serving rakı. Emre said all the restaurants were warned that letting their customers drink rakı outside of the restaurant’s interior perimeter was strictly forbidden.

An opera singer, Güvenç Dağüstün, was in Adana for the festival too. He told me he was with a group in a restaurant where the music was stopped and the speakers were collected by the police. Dağüstün then started singing himself to bring joy to his table and to the restaurant. Five policemen showed up and warned him not to sing. People resisted. After a while, the police had to leave and people sang the whole night long.

In Parliament, the opposition used the opportunity to directly ask the Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu about the measures taken against the festival in the parliament. Soylu briefly answered that the festival was “not in line with Turkish traditions and customs.”

Residents of Adana are now jokingly saying they will try to have the same festival next year with a new name. They will call it the Bici Festival, in honor of a traditional sorbet from Adana, and try their luck with the value system of New Turkey.