[Originally published in Hürriyet Daily News]
At the very end of my high school years, at the age of 18, I attended what Americans call “the prom” — the graduation party where all the students dress up and dance all night long. Alcohol was one of the key attractions of the night. Unfortunately, one of my classmates drank so irresponsibly that he got totally drunk and finally collapsed on the dance floor. He was taken to the hospital, and the doctors, as I learned later, said that he barely survived alcohol poisoning.
Several years later, on a trip to the United States, I noticed that there are very strict rules about not serving any liquor to anyone who is under 21. It made sense, in light of my prom night and in light of the fact that even 15-year-olds can easily walk into a bar in Istanbul and get a drink. We Turks, I thought, are perhaps a bit too lax in regulating alcohol consumption.
Very hidden agenda
I am recalling these in connection to the new regulations the Turkish government has brought to alcohol sales and promotion. Some of the rules make total sense. Alcoholic beverages will not be sold in stores near highways, for example, which might hopefully reduce the number of drunken drivers, of which we have no shortage. The ban on liquor brands advertising at public events for children or youth also makes sense, with regards to “protecting the youth from alcohol.”
But there are a few other elements that seem to interfere in the lives of adults as well. Giving out free alcoholic drinks as a gift, prize, sample or promotion, for example, will also be banned. Why? Should the state “protect” adults as well?
Such questions are being hotly debated in the Turkish media. On the one hand, there are those die-hard secularists who see a “hidden Islamist agenda” in every step the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, takes. On the opposite side, there are those who think whatever the AKP does is right. I will try to be in the middle.
Let me begin by noting that reliance on state authority is a doomed tradition that almost every camp in Turkish society is poisoned with. The ultra-secularists (a.k.a. the Kemalists) have been the perfect case study, for they have dominated the state for decades and used it simply to impose their views. Hence came the ban on Sufi orders, headscarves, the Kurdish language and “insults to Atatürk.”
Yet the religious conservatives, who have been the main victims of this authoritarianism, were actually not much different from it: They were also intolerant of ideologies and lifestyles other than their own. The Islamist tradition that most AKP folks are rooted in, especially, was clearly illiberal. It just wanted to replace the Kemalistly defined public life with an Islamicly defined one. (“Islamic” as they understood it.)
Yet a small miracle began in the late ’90s: The more open-minded wing in the Islamic camp realized that there is a third way, the liberal one, on which a pluralist Turkey that gives space for everyone can be built. That’s why the AKP began as a “conservative” yet liberal-leaning party, keen on joining the EU and realizing the EU-induced reforms.
Just two days ago, Bülent Arınç, the AKP’s second figure after Erdoğan, spoke candidly about “this transformation in his life.” On the issue of alcohol, he said:
“I have not had a drop of alcohol in my life. When I was first elected to Parliament, in 1995, the Manisa Chamber of Trade and Commerce gave a dinner. I saw alcohol at the table, and then I refused to sit there and left. Then I became the Parliament speaker. I saw that we have to be able to sit at these tables. We can have friends who drink. Hence I serve this [alcohol] at the receptions that I now give.”
So, the AKP, and its cadres, have indeed changed.
The future risk
Yet there was a risk here: The AKP’s transformation was an ad hoc one, brought more by “facts of life” than deep contemplations and discussions about Islamic theology. In fact, there was a particular Islamic (“modernist”) theology that would justify liberal democracy, but not everybody in the Islamic camp had accepted or internalized it.
Secondly, the AKP’s transformation was mostly driven by its willingness to find a way out of the oppressions of the Kemalist establishment. Their sympathy for liberalism, in other words, came from the troubles they faced from the illiberal secular state.
But what would happen when Kemalism ceased to be dominant, and the religious conservatives became the masters of the state rather than its victims?
These days, we Turks are discussing several issues relevant to this question: Erdoğan’s limited tolerance of a controversial statue, the conservatives’ intolerance of a soap opera that “insults” Ottomanness and the confusing alcohol regulations that I mentioned.
None of these, in my view, confirm the ultra-secularist conspiracy theory — that the AKP is Taliban-in-disguise. But they show that the transformation of the Islamic camp in Turkey is a work still in progress. It will need more liberal criticism and more “modernist” theological reasoning in the years to come. And I, for my part, will be happy to offer both.