Drinking is far from the only issue at Taksim Square,but it has become closely intertwined with the protests against the Turkish government

After retaking Taksim Square in Istanbul after hours of ugly street battles with police officers firing tear gas this month,many of the haggard protesters cracked bottles of Efes beer and raised them in a mock toast to their prime minister,who had recently pushed through a law to curb drinking.

And even in Isparta,a religiously conservative region that is a wellspring of support for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan,a small group of residents,drinks in hand,gathered outside the office of the local governor who is an ally of the embattled prime minister and chanted,“Cheers,Tayyip!”

Drinking is far from the only issue held up in the intense anti-government protests that have convulsed Turkey for more than a week. But it has become closely intertwined with the broader complaints of demonstrators fighting what they see as the rising authoritarianism of the Turkish government.

It also cuts to the heart of Turkish identity,as both sides have cast it as a clash of Islamic and secular values. While protesters have held up new limits on drinking as an affront to the secular values of modern Turkey,Erdogan has said that “religion demands” curbs on drinking. He has gone so far as to implicitly refer to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk,the founder of Turkey and a notoriously heavy drinker,as a “drunkard,” and in one of a series of speeches he delivered Sunday to cheering supporters,accused protesters of taking beer into mosques.


There are some signs,however,that the push to further limit alcohol use may be weakening. A local court here quietly issued an injunction overturning a local law that restricted the sale and consumption of alcohol. A court in another small community outside Ankara,Turkey’s capital,issued a similar ruling.

Most notably,President Abdullah Gul has yet to sign the national legislation,and he raised the possibility of a veto by saying he would take public opinion into account in deciding.

Though alcohol has,for the moment,become a national issue,there is little evidence that it is a majority one: Nondrinkers are widely believed to greatly outnumber drinkers in Turkey.

In Isparta,once home to an important Muslim spiritual leader and still noted for roses widely used in lotions and perfumes,local residents are more likely to drink a sweet beverage made from rose syrup,served ice cold,than they are to raise a glass of raki,Turkey’s famous anise-flavoured liquor. Even before the proposed nationwide law,this community cracked down on drinking with local ordinances.

“It isn’t really about religion,” said Yusuf Gunaydin,the mayor,who like many residents is a teetotaller. “For us,it’s more about the drunk people,the disagreements,the violence against women.”

But,he added,“of course,in Islam it is haram to drink alcohol.”

Tuba Inamlik,a 23-year-old engineering student outside a bar said: “Religion is a very personal thing. Whatever I do,if I drink,it’s between me and my god.”

Beyond religious considerations,there is also Turkey’s history.

Turan Eroglu,the manager of a bar called Barcelona,one of the few drinking holes left in the centre of Isparta,referred to a brutal Ottoman sultan who reigned in the 17th century in describing plans by Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party,known by the initials AKP,to restrict alcohol.

“We’re going back to the time of Murad IV when alcohol was banned,” he said. “The AKP is taking us back. This only happens in Iran. Now it happens in Turkey.”

Drinking has,for better or worse,been closely associated with the lifestyle of Ataturk,who became a hard drinker and once wrote to his secretary,according to his biographer,Andrew Mango,“I’ve got to drink: My mind keeps on working hard and fast to the point of suffering.”

In Turkey,lifestyle choices—to wear a head scarf,or not,to drink,or not—are often highly politicised. Jenny White,an anthropologist at Boston University,who recently published a book that examines Turkey’s changes under Erdogan’s decade in power called Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks,described drinking in Turkey as,“a highly charged cultural marker of social class,lifestyle and political values.”

Cagri Tazgel,who is 25 and works at a software company,stood outside a bar and framed the issue in terms of a class divide that,as much as religion,underlies the protest movement that has so dramatically exposed this country’s many fault lines.


“Turkey is a country of mostly uneducated and illiterate people with strong religious feelings,and this is what the AKP represents,” he said. “This isn’t my government. Ultimately I will leave this country.”

Tim Arango