Turkey's alcohol law renews accusations of Erdogan's Islamist agenda

Critics say Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pushing the country towards an Islamic state after parliament passes a law limiting alcohol sales and advertisement. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul

ISTANBUL // A plan to restrict the sale of alcohol in Turkey has drawn accusations that the government is steering the secular republic towards an Islamic system.
A bill drawn up by the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and passed by parliament last week would introduce a blanket ban on advertisement for alcoholic beverages and would make it illegal to sell alcohol within 100 metres of a mosque or school. Establishments that are already located near mosques and schools are exempt from the law.
The bill, which still needs presidential approval to become law, also includes a ban on selling alcohol in shops between 10pm and 6am. Bars restaurants and nightclubs can continue to sell alcohol until they close.
The legislation also includes an order for television stations to blur "encouraging" images of alcoholic beverages in films, shows or music videos.
Abdullah Gul, the president and a former AKP prime minister, is expected to sign the bill into law in the next 10 days.
While alcohol is legal in Turkey, a mostly Muslim nation of 76 million people with a secular constitution, the government says its sale should be controlled for reasons of public health and to protect youth from the dangers of drinking.
"We don't want a generation wandering around being high day and night," Mr Erdogan told an AKP meeting on Friday.
According to official figures, alcohol consumption in Turkey has risen under the AKP government.
However, the alcohol legislation has stoked concerns in some quarters that the AKP, a party with roots in political Islam, has been following a secret agenda aimed at turning Turkey into an Islamic state since coming to power in 2002.
"The religion of Islam regards alcohol as a sin, but the state must not make laws based on the [religious] idea of sin," said Akif Hamzacebi, a leading MP of the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), the largest opposition group in Parliament.
In recent years, government critics have said the AKP's decision to allow female students at universities to wear a headscarf on campus and to a reform strengthening the role of religious high schools as evidence of what they see as an continuing process of Islamisation.
Izzet Cetin, an MP for the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), the biggest opposition group in parliament, said last week that the government was trying to tell people what to do in their private lives.
"I do not use alcohol or cigarettes myself, but this is not an alcohol law, but a law to restrict rights and freedoms," Mr Cetin told the parliament's budget committee, according to news reports. "This is a law to tell people what to do and what not to do."
The deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, rejected the opposition's accusations.
"We will not interfere with who drinks alcohol and who does not," Mr Arinc told Turkey's state broadcaster TRT. "But alcohol will not be freely available."
In downtown Istanbul, where hundreds of bars, restaurants and nightclubs draw millions of people every year, the government plans were greeted with dismay.
"It will be difficult with the new law," Cengiz, a waiter in Cezayir Sokak, a bar-lined street in central Istanbul, said last weekend, as outdoor tables filled up with people ordering beer, wine or cocktails in the warm evening air. "We don't know what's it going to be like."
Under the proposed law, bars such as Cengiz' would not be allowed to have the logo of alcohol brands on their walls, and bottles or cans of alcohol would have to carry health warnings. It would be illegal for supermarkets or shops to promote alcoholic beverages with special sales. Also, alcohol companies would be prohibited from sponsoring events such as concerts.
"Things will get worse in Turkey," said the employee of an Istanbul concert venue that staged a show sponsored by a beer company recently. "Actually, these are the good days for us", before the new law takes effect, she said.
Business leaders also voiced reservations.
Mehmet Isler, the deputy president of the Turkish Hoteliers Association, warned the law would scare off foreign tourists, whose number reached a record 31.7 million last year.
According to the latest available figures by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, average annual alcohol consumption in Turkey rose from 1.4 litres of alcohol per head in 2002, the year the AKP came to power, to 1.5 litres in 2010.
Last year, 1.1 billion litres of alcoholic beverages were consumed in Turkey, up 6.3 per cent from 2011, government statistics show.