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Turkey's new Alcohol Law: This Land was Made for You and Me?

January 19, 2011

Apologies for the thesis-wonderful title on this, but I have Guthrie on my mind.

I was locked in conversation last week with a friend of mine about what foreigners who’ve settled down in Istanbul think of Istanbul. How our biases shape our view of the city, how the city shapes our biases, and all of that sort of fun stuff. I won’t begin to hedge on his project, but it’s a fun late-night conversation, for sure.

And meanwhile, the fantastic new website Tarlabasi Istanbul has made its presence felt on the people who care about this sort of thing. It’s a fantastic look at a changing city, a look that has to be taken a bit more analytically than it has so far.

Tarlabasi Istanbul’s October post on the changing Tophane was fantastic. The foreigner presence has a real effect on this city, an effect that foreigners are not always comfortable with. We would, I imagine, prefer to make our stamp on the city by our bold actions, not by bars and cafes catering to our whims. We covered the Tophane street brawls here, but Tİ did a far better job. But there was a question there that has returned with the drama surrounding the new alcohol law that came last week. What, precisely, are the forces at play here?

First to the Alcohol Law. And yeah, it’s a bit lame. At least taxing I can understand, because yeah, well, taxing luxury items is at least part and parcel of what governments do, particularly populist governments like the AKP. This goes a bit into social engineering, which is a bit creepy. But there’s no real opposition forces to stop it.

Turkish Muse has a very good recap of the new law and a bit of history of drinking in Turkey. I don’t necessarily agree with all of her assertions, but we are playing with most of the same facts. Her recap is fair to quote:

There are lots of problems in Turkey, and honestly, the price of alcohol does not top the list. But I see this situation as part of a much larger problem here: that of the AKP attempting to change social and cultural behavior by instituting taxes and curbing freedoms. From police raids on restaurants where alcohol is sold in the presence of children to select municipalities raising taxes for businesses that sell booze, there is now a much higher price to pay for enjoying your evening martini.

The new law is a bit sloppy and insincere, I agree. But there is signal to the noise. According to WHO, Turkey has some of the highest percentage of its diseases attributed to alcohol.

In addition, the rate of alcohol consumption has increased steadily since Turkey has industrialized (and if anyone has more current data than this from 2001, let me know. The most recent I’ve found is 1.5L/p @ 2005). Let it be known that 1.5 is still pretty much nothing. Turkey’s post-Soviet cousins in Azerbaijan are comfortably in the 8’s. Cyprus is near the top at 11+.

Is alcoholism in Turkey a problem to be solved by placing limits on advertising and sales? No, probably not. It would probably be much better done by better education and – one could argue – an improvement in unemployment figures.

But alcoholism is an issue in Turkey. And not cool, functioning, freelance photographer alcoholism but real, nasty, Yedikule alcoholism. There is quite a difference.

Then there is the question of “How is this going to affect me as an expatriate?” If you are in Istanbul, Izmir, or Ankara? Not at all. You’ll buy your booze or have it come through duty free. You’ll be fine.

That said, let’s all drink to the AKP on 29/1 anyways. I’ll be there. I’m always going to support a boozy protest. What can I say? I’m Midwestern.

This law has far less to do with Beyoglu and far more with the outlying districts of Istanbul. And far less to do with these Gavur cities and far more to do with rapidly urbanizing Anatolia. Alcoholism is largely an urban problem, and who knows? Maybe this is part of a multi-pronged solution to help bring the poorest elements out of poverty in Anatolia, particularly in massively overpopulated cities like Diyarbakir. I sincerely doubt it, but it’s not worth entirely writing off.

In short? The Alcohol Law is probably partially a tweak at the currently powerless CHP’li, and much more a step by the AKP to create the Turkey they believe in. In other words: it’s every other political move made by this government and countless others. It was just a bit more tone deaf then most.

But that won’t stop people from asking why Turkey is taking these steps towards a more Orthodox Islam, and from blaming it on some amorphous Islamic force.

I’ve argued before (though only somewhat seriously) that Islamicism as an international force does not exist. Exterior, non-Turkish, views on Islam largely have not made their way into Turkey, there is no Wahabi, no Hizb-ut-Tahrir, no Muslim Brotherhood influence in Turish life writ large. The Gulen Movement certainly is, and is worth an actual academic look besides “GOODBAD!” If anyone would like to direct me to somesuch source or – better yet – a review of Hür Adam I’d be most appreciative. The fact is, there is no united Muslim movement in Turkey, and any instant of something like it is just political expediency.

To bring me back to how I began writing this, let’s look at the drama that unfolded in Tophane.

The tension in neighborhoods like Tophane lies far beyond the simple dichotomy. There was a quote in Contanze Letsch’s Tophane article that blew me away:

Just a month and a half ago, a man insulted me and my sisters because of our clothes. That man had moved here from Malatya; he was rich and had lived a more exclusive life, but then he comes and treats the people who have always lived here badly.

Wait a second, the Malatya’li is the rich, westernized, prat? The super-Muslim dude is really chill, talks to the gallery owners, all of that?

Islam as an amorphous baddie, responsible for all things un-foreigner, doesn’t quite fly in general. Was the Alcohol Law inspired by the Islam of AKP? Of course it was. Is it part of an internationalist plot to make the whole world Muslim? Of course not. It’s a blip, a data point. Should the CHP, or some other party, ever find a way to take back control of government, it’ll be on the chopping block right off.

There’s a series of links I’ve taken from Carpetblogger a while back now about expatriate living. There’s a range of stuff there all of which I want to say I’m 100% complicit in, from the lily-whiteness (and accompanying blandess) of us expats to the ways we try and fight that by trying on nativity like its a new shirt. My favorite part of it, though? Falsely distinguishing between expat and an immigrant. Because the expatriate Gulfies and East Asians living in Turkey? That ain’t our crowd, man. Those are immigrants. They’re not in our drinking circles, and as such their lack of voice is even less than ours. It’s an argument past each other, in many ways.

It’s all great stuff, and it’s all relevant to this point that I’m hoping to wind my way to making. There is much ado being made of an law that mostly resembles the facts on the ground. Anger at a law that, again, reflects popular sentiment is certainly warranted, certainly acceptable, but ultimately a bit bizarre. For the Turkish anger, it absolutely makes sense: it is anger at their powerlessness to get rid of the authoritarian streak of the AKP. For the expatriate anger, it is a bit more bizarre. It is anger at much of the same things we came to Turkey for.

How much Turkey is Muslim vs. some indeterminate type of Weimar is up to debate. A really fun, really interesting, debate. But this law reflects the Turkey that we all know exists. That has kept the AKP in power since 2002. The expatriate reaction is just another puzzle piece in the complex life of choosing to live in the very country that you know you do not have a voice in. Just for Christ’s sake, leave the Hemingway quotes in bed.

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