ISTANBUL: There have been ferocious battles over banning adultery or outlawing headscarves. Now drink has become the battleground in Turkey’s struggle to define the country’s values — religious or secular, Middle Eastern or European.

Turkish liberals and secularists are angry about the efforts of the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to limit and what they call “ghettoise” the supply and consumption of alcohol.

The Ankara Bar Association filed a lawsuit this week seeking to reverse government instructions to municipalities that would restrict the sale and consumption of alcohol to designated areas. The lawyers argue that the government move is anti-constitutional.

According to a survey by the Merkez news agency, there are now alcohol bans in public places in 61 of Turkey’s 81 provinces. By law, it would be difficult for the government to issue a blanket ban on alcohol. Raki is the national tipple in Turkey, which also boasts a growing quality wine industry and Efes, a major brewer. Critics complain, however, that the Erdogan government is moving by stealth to institute a ban, to stigmatise drinking, and to step up pressure on the industry.

Antalya on the Mediterranean reacted to the curbs by declaring the city a “wet zone”, fearful of the impact that the policy would have in attracting tourists. But Antalya is also run by Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the city council is embroiled in a row over the government campaign. The AKP has its roots in Turkish political Islam, although Mr Erdogan, a devout and teetotal Muslim, insists that conservative family values rather than religious edicts form the core of his policy-making.

But AKP-controlled councils across the country are moving to restrict the sale of alcohol, banish drink from town centres, and to confine drinkers to what are being dubbed “red-light districts” or “alcohol ghettoes” on the edges of towns.

“As a state institution the municipalities can never set a bad example,” Mr Erdogan declared. “Those who want to take alcohol can go to facilities outside of the municipality-run places.” Tarik Bayazit, owner of Changa, one of Istanbul’s hippest restaurants, said the government would like to stamp its values on a young and rapidly growing population. “It’s mad. If you ban drinking in this city, there will be a revolution. There would be a very bad reaction.” An opposition leader, Kemal Anadol, argued that it was illegal to segregate alcohol consumption in cafes and restaurants. “What they want is Tehran not Luxembourg,” he said.

However, in Ankara, which has been a secularist citadel since the foundation of the modern republic after the first world war, the curbs on drinking are making headway. At two large parks, owned by the city and run by the AKP, alcohol has been banned in the restaurants and cafes.

Across Turkey the local authorities still own and administer many leisure facilities such as hotels, restaurants and cafes. It is in such places that alcohol is increasingly being restricted or banished. The government has not yet moved against privately owned premises, but proprietors complain that bureaucratic and fiscal obstacles to alcohol consumption are being exploited to discourage drinking — cumbersome licensing procedures, inspections, and taxes.

But the global clout of the international drinks giants may be irresistible. “You have a large population and a very young population. The demographics present big opportunities,” Mr Bayazit said.—Dawn/The Guardian News Service