Turkish Parliament Tamps Down On Alcohol Sales

Robert Siegel talks with Hugh Pope, the Turkey/Cyprus project director for the International Crisis Group, about the Turkish parliament's passage of a law that restricts the sale of alcohol.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Last week, Turkey's parliament passed a law aimed at curbing alcohol consumption. No alcohol may be sold after 10 p.m., none may be sold within 100 meters of a school, a mosque, a church or a synagogue. Turks will need permission to consume alcohol on beaches and in picnic areas and televised images of alcoholic drinks being consumed must be blurred.

This bill was championed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party, the AKP, a party with roots in political Islam. Hugh Pope is the Turkey/Cyprus project director for the International Crisis Group. He lives in Istanbul and has written and blogged about Turkey for many years and joins us now. Welcome to the program once again.

HUGH POPE: Hello.

SIEGEL: Now, I gather that a restaurant in your own neighborhood already has shown the impact of this new law.

POPE: Yes. I went to have a normal lunch and one of my guests ordered a beer and was told she couldn't have one. I think the restaurant was running scared, actually. I think they never had a proper license so they were taking some preemptive action since other restaurants, which have full licenses, have not yet changed their alcohol policy, but it's quite clear that there are going to be changes now. This is stricter regulation than we have ever had before.

SIEGEL: Now, a member of the Turkish parliament, from Prime Minister Erdogan's party, was quoted as saying the more alcohol, the more crime from violence to sexual abuse, 60 to 70 percent of accidents that land people in intensive care units are due to alcohol. He's pitching this as a public health measure, not a religious back to basics measure. Which is it?

POPE: Absolutely. They're even comparing this to a 100-yard law they say is in New York, and to Scandinavia and Russia as well. That may be the spin, but the blogosphere in Turkey and Twitter is alive and fizzing with angry secular-minded Turks who feel that their secular lifestyles are likely to change. I somehow doubt it's going to be that radical, but like everything in Turkey, so quickly becomes political and polarized almost a class war. The old rural Turkey which doesn't drink so much anyway, who don't mind about having no more drinks. But in the Westernized western cities of Turkey, people really do care about it. So it's fed into one of those fault lines of Turkish politics and has flared up more than anything else in recent months.

SIEGEL: I suppose that for many Western-minded Turks who live in Istanbul, where you live, restrictions on the sale of alcohol don't smack of the European-ness of which Turks are proud and to which they aspire, even through membership in the European Union.

POPE: That's true. And the fact is that if you go up the Bosphorus on any given night, you'll find restaurant after restaurant after restaurant of tables of Turkish people drinking wine or raki or beer and not thinking twice about it. They feel no conflict between their European ambitions, their Turkishness, and they are also no worse a Muslim for having the occasional drink.

SIEGEL: Hugh Pope, in your blog, you have link to a map that somebody has drawn trying to figure out all the places that, I guess, are more than 100 meters from a religious institution or a school and it's a pretty spotty map.

POPE: Yeah, there's not much left for restaurants and bars, is there? And that's what makes me think that this is what in Turkey's often called an Ottoman law, that is a law which is simply unenforceable. And quite frankly, I had always supposed that there was a 100-meter law about this, but it was just no one ever tried to do it very hard.

And funny enough, we obviously have Syria on our minds a lot here and it turns out that in Syria, which used to be part of the Ottoman Empire, they still have a 100-meter rule. So in that sense, it's a bit of a restatement to something that already existed and it remains to be seen whether the local authorities are really ready to go head to head with some pretty tough restaurant and bar managers in one of the biggest tourist destinations of the world.

SIEGEL: Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

POPE: Thank you.

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