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Archive for the ‘Alcohol’ Category

SECULARISM, BEER AND BIKINIS (2011-03-09)

HURRIYET DAILY NEWS

 

SECULARISM, BEER AND BIKINIS

CAN ERİMTAN

Some time ago, the Turkish government made public that it planned to alter the way in which alcohol is being sold in the country. According to some, the current Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government has been waging a war against the consumption of alcohol in the country in a bold-faced attempt to bring Turkey more in line with Islamic rules and regulations.

Two vocal critics of the AKP and its government, Soner Çağaptay and Cansın Ersöz, researchers affiliated with the Turkish Research Program at the pro-Israeli Washington Institute for Near East Policy, categorically write that since “the AKP rose to power in Turkey in 2002, special taxes on alcohol have increased dramatically, making a glass of wine or beer one of the most expensive in Europe, and for that purpose anywhere in the world.” In June 2002, the AKP adopted the Special Consumption Tax, or ÖTV, which raised the tax on alcoholic beverages from 18 percent (the standard VAT rate) to 48 percent, and as time went by, the ÖTV rate increased more and more until it reached 63 percent in 2009. Subsequently, the government came under fire for its policy and in 2010, some ÖTV taxes were eliminated.

But now the Tobacco and Alcohol Market Regulatory Authority, or TAPDK, has issued new regulations restricting advertisements for alcoholic beverages as well as its sale tactics. The decree requires catering companies that organize events that serve alcoholic beverages to get a license before each event. While it also prohibits supermarkets and grocery stores from placing alcoholic products for sale near goods aimed at children and youngsters. In addition, the sale of alcohol will be banned at municipally owned establishments and along roads designated as highways and state routes in the traffic code. However, no such provision in the regulation will apply to the sale of alcoholic beverages at venues in coastal zones. Draconic measures which restrict access to a product which is already restricted as a result of its high price?

Çağaptay and Ersöz opine that in “2003, Turkey’s per capita alcohol consumption rate was 1.4 liters per year. For that same year, this amount was 10.9 liters in Belgium; and 11.5 liters and 9.0 liters in neighboring Cyprus and Greece respectively. Even, Qatar, which implements a rigid version of the Shariah under the Wahhabi school, had higher per capita alcohol consumption rates than Turkey, at 4.4 liras per capita.” In other words, Turkish citizens do not appear to partake of alcoholic beverages all that much to begin with.

Arguments claiming to protect the young are very popular when it comes to restricting access to “forbidden” products such as pornography and/or drugs the world over. Mehmet Küçük, the head of the TAPDK, has publicly said that the aim of the new decree was not to restrict individuals’ freedoms but to lessen alcohol’s incentive. In other words, Küçük merely wants to limit the availability of attractive seducers, arguably in a way somewhat similar to the effect of laws that eventually prohibited the Marlboro Man from riding into the sunset while willingly exposing his body to carcinogenic substances in Europe and elsewhere. Küçük is thus suggesting that Turkish citizens require a nanny-state that knows best what is right or wrong. Turkey, a country that straddles the Balkans and the Middle East with a population that is officially 99.9 percent Muslim, is arguably the only country with an Islamic population and culture that allows its citizens unrestricted access to alcoholic beverages. Are the new regulations regarding the sale of alcoholic beverages in Turkey a somewhat cynical ploy to increase the state’s tax revenues or is there more than meets the eye?

In my opinion, the whole debate surrounding the consumption of alcohol in Turkey is primarily about perception. Opponents of the AKP government accuse Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ministers of secretly planning to introduce Islamic codes and attitudes via the backdoor. They thus regard this new TAPDK decree as a direct attack on the country’s “secular constitution.”

Is this really the case, and if so, why? In my book, “Ottomans looking West?” I posited that the “proclamation of the Republic . . . liberated Turkish citizens from the restrictions of Islam and the Şeriat [Shariah].” As a result, Republican Turks were meant to enjoy this world and its delights to the fullest and the decision to let Turkish citizens “partake of the delights of the mortal world was arguably crystallized in the consumption of alcoholic beverages. A strict interpretation of Islam explicitly prohibits the drinking of intoxicants in this world.” Hence, the issue of unrestricted access to beer and other alcoholic intoxicants has now assumed political, if not ideological, importance.

Turkey’s Muslim citizens have had legal access to alcohol since 1926. Turkey’s Islamic neighbor states do not grant their citizens equally easy access to the forbidden delights of alcohol. As a result, some Turks regard the issue as critical to the definition of secularism in the country. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) also defines secularism as “Concerned with the affairs of this world, wordly; not sacred.”

But nowadays, the term, particularly in its French form of laicité (at the root of Turkey’s laiklik), denotes a strict separation of church (or religion) and state. And, the theory is that Turkey, as a result of the reform movement, known as the İnkılap, is a secular state. In reality, however, ever since the Turkish state abolished the Caliphate and the Ministry of Pious Endowments in 1924, the Turkish Republic has regulated its citizens’ religious life through the Religious Affairs Directorate, a branch of government attached to the office of the prime minister.

Consequently, proponents of secularism in Turkey quite naturally feel the need to attach a lot of importance to certain symbolic issues: the availability of alcoholic beverages springs to mind, as well as the thorny headscarf issue, or rather the notion that women possess the freedom to don more or less revealing outfits (arguably, to please the male gaze). Let us call these charged matters “beer and bikinis” as a shorthand for the contentious topic of Turkish secularism in the 21st century.

Ali Bardakoğlu, the president of the Diyanet until recently, publicly called for the establishment of an independent religious authority in Turkey in an interview he gave to the self-avowed atheist Ahmet İnsel of daily Radikal (Oct. 23-24, 2010). After he made these statements, Bardakoğlu was replaced by Mehmet Görmez as the head of the Diyanet (Nov. 11).

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The Syria Situation: Turkey’s Response, Russia’s Reluctance, Israel’s Trepidation, and Iran

From Beirut, the BBC’s Jim Muir reports that “[I]It’s the villages and hills to the east and north of Jisr al-Shughour that now seem to be the focus of the army’s efforts to re-impose the regime’s control over the defiant area. State media said the army was chasing what they called the “remnants of armed terrorist gangs” through the surrounding countryside. Activists said local men of military age were being rounded up, houses damaged and crops destroyed. The units involved in this assault are believed to be from the army’s much-feared 4th division, under the direct command of President Assad’s brother, Maher. This was the division that ruthlessly suppressed defiance down in the city of Deraa in the south, near the Jordanian border, where the whole uprising began in March and where dissent continues to smoulder”.[1]  Turkey has defiantly opened its borders to refugees, set up tent cities, and urged the Syrian regime to exercise caution. As remarked by Sevil Küçükkoşum, “Turkey has begun a substantial re-evaluation of its Syrian policy, as more than 7,000 Syrians have now fled to Hatay while another 15,000 mass near the border, according to reports”.[2]  But, as indicated by Iran’s Press TV, not everybody opposes President Assad.

 

Now that the world, in the shape of the UN and NATO, is intervening in Libya for the sake of “protecting civilians” and ensuring that Colonel Gaddafi leaves the scene, voices have emerged urging a similar approach to Syria and President Assad’s Baath regime. Even though the situation in Libya is far from clear, and Gaddafi appears more than unwilling to give up without a fight, the principle of “humanitarian intervention”, even if it might seem nothing but a hypocritical ploy to ensure that Libyan oil does not get lost and regime change usher in the demise of one of the West’s most persistent bogeyman, would also seem to be applicable to Syria. Still, as worded by the erstwhile career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service M. K. Bhadrakumar, “Russia is stubbornly blocking US attempts to drum up a case for Libya-style intervention in Syria”.[3]  And why would Russia be blocking such attempts. As long ago as 27 February 2009, the state-sponsored news broadcaster RT (or Russia Today) reported that ‘Russian warships have returned to the naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, used by the Soviet Union since the late sixties, after more than a decade of absence’.

 Last year the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that ‘Russia will finish the fundamental renovation at its naval logistics base in the Syrian port of Tartus by 2011, said the Navy’s General Staff on Wednesday. Having been upgrading the Tartus port for several years, the Navy’s General Staff said in a statement that “the main purpose is to develop logistics . . . to upgrade the existing coastal infrastructures and create new ones that will provide convenient moorage and stable supply for Russian ships pulling into Tartus with fuel, water, food and other supplies. The bulk of the works is to be completed in 2011,” said the statement. The Navy’s General Staff also said that its fleet already had a functioning logistics facility at Tartus, whose condition and capabilities fell short of  requirements’.[4]

The Americans are of course fully aware of Russia’s designs in Syria, and are now staging joint U.S.-Ukraine naval exercises in the Black Sea. Russia has been craving access to the Mediterranean since the days of Peter the Great (1682-1725). The Soviets finally succeeded in realising Tsarist ambitions in the 20th century, and in the 21st independent and “free-market” Russia is once again following the lead of its Communist precursor. As the largest country on earth, with untold energy reserves underground and a looming spectre of alcoholism above ground,[5] Russia today is once again engaged in challenging the U.S. in the region and further afield. Do these joint naval exercises make the Russians feel nervous???  Moscow’s Foreign Ministry has issued this official statement recently: “While leaving aside the unsettled issue of a possible European missile shield architecture, Russia would like to know, in compliance with the Russia-NATO Lisbon summit decisions, what ‘aggravation’ the US command meant by moving the basic strike unit of the regional missile defense grouping being formed by NATO in the region, from the Mediterranean to the East?”.[6]

These power games also affect another player in the region, attested by the following report from Jerusalem dating back to August 2008: ‘Syrian President Bashar Assad arrived in Russia . . . for a two-day visit during which he is seeking to purchase advanced weaponry from Moscow including the Pantsyr-S1 Air Defense Missile system, the BUK-M1 surface-to-air medium-range missile system and the sophisticated S-300 long range anti-aircraft missile system already purchased by Iran. Syria has also reportedly offered to allow Moscow to deploy its Russian Iskander missile system, an advanced short-range, solid fuel-propelled missile, in its territory. The new Russo-Syrian military cooperation comes in reaction to the recent US-Poland missile deal which positions NATO missile systems on Russia’s western front, eliciting harsh threats and criticism’.

A month later, the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network (IRINN) aired this report. Israel’s current Premier Bibi is all but outspoken about his dislike for Iran’s regime and his desire to attack Iran unilaterally.

All the while, hapless Syrians keep pouring into the Turkish province of Hatay. A Turkish government insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Hürriyet Daily News that “Turkey will keep engaging with Syria [to urge it to enact reforms and abstain from violence], but Syria’s attitude will determine our position”.[7]  The Associated Press remarked that “[t]roops led by President Bashar al-Assad’s brother regained control of Jisr al-Shughour on Sunday [, 12 June], sending in tanks and helicopter gunships after shelling the town. But residents were still terrified; Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday [, 13 June] that hundreds of Syrians have crossed over since Sunday”.[8]  On the other hand, one should not lose sight of the fact that the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen too are inter-connected and dependent upon a whole range of alliances and counter-alliance. For instance, last year, Xinhua also reported that ‘Russia did not exclude the possibility of building naval logistic facilities in Socotra Island, Yemen, as well as in Tripoli, Libya, but for now, the choice is limited to Tartus’.[9]  As for Turkey’s southern neighbour, Bhadrakumar has this straightforward analysis: “Put simply, the US wants Russia to leave Syria alone for the West to tackle. But Russia knows what follows will be that the Russian naval base there would get shut down by a pro-Western successor regime in Damascus that succeeds Assad”.[10]  And that would spell an end to Russia centuries’ old dream of having a steady access to the Mediterranean, given the equally uncertain future awaiting Gaddafi.


[1] Jim Muir, “Analysis” BBC News (13 June 2011). http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-13746633.

[2] Sevil Küçükkoşum, “Ankara revisits Syrian policy” Hürriyet Daily News (13 June 2011).  http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=ankara-revisits-syrian-policy-2011-06-13.

[3] M K Bhadrakumar, “Syria on the boil, US warship in Black Sea” Asia Times Online (14 June 2011). http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/MF14Ak02.html.

[4] “Russian Navy to upgrade Tartus naval base by 2011” Xinhua (13 January 2010). http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2010-01/14/content_12805592.htm.

[5] “Alcohol Around the World: World Health Organization Report” A Pseudo-Ottoman Blog (03 March 2011). https://sitanbul.wordpress.com/2011/03/03/alcohol-around-the-world-world-health-organization-report/.

[6] M K Bhadrakumar, “Syria on the boil, US warship in Black Sea”.

[7] Sevil Küçükkoşum, “Ankara revisits Syrian policy”.

[8] “Lips sealed as number of Syrian refugees in Turkey swells to 7,000” Today’s Zaman (13 June 2011). http://www.todayszaman.com/news-247211-lips-sealed-as-number-of-syrian-refugees-in-turkey-swells-to-7000.html.

[9] “Russian Navy to upgrade Tartus naval base by 2011”.

[10] M K Bhadrakumar, “Syria on the boil, US warship in Black Sea”.

Alcohol Around the World: World Health Organization Report

The VOA website posted a Special English Health Report, written by Caty Weaver, with the help of Lisa Schlein: the ‘World Health Organization says alcohol abuse is the third leading cause of death and disability in the world. A new WHO report says the harmful use of alcohol kills two and one-half million people a year. And officials say action is needed to reduce the problem. The WHO [recently] released the “Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2011” . . .  The report shows young people at risk. It says three hundred twenty thousand people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine die yearly from alcohol-related causes. That is nine percent of all deaths in that age group. Shekhar Saxena is director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at the World Health Organization. He says alcohol is responsible for one-third of the deaths among young people in some parts of the world. SHEHAR SAXENA: “Consumption and harmful effects of alcohol are increasing in developing countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, which have less powerful regulations and which have less health services available.” The World Health Organization report finds that six percent of all male deaths worldwide are related to alcohol. This is true in only one percent of female deaths. The report says one in five men die from alcohol-related causes in the Russian Federation and neighboring countries. There are four main causes of alcohol-related death. Injury from car accidents or violence is one. Diseases like cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, heart and blood system diseases are the others. The WHO report says alcohol abuse also adds to the development of two hundred other diseases. However, the majority of people in the world are not alcohol drinkers. The report says in two thousand five, almost half of men and two-thirds of women did not drink alcohol at all. Dr. Saxena says people who are dependent on alcohol live ten years less on average than those who do not have the problem. SHEHAR SAXENA: “I think a large proportion of what we are talking about in the two point five million deaths are in the age groups of people who should not die at that age. So, these are premature deaths. The majority of deaths is below the age of sixty, actually.” The WHO has a plan to reduce the harmful use of alcohol. It includes raising taxes on alcohol, reducing the number of places to buy alcohol and raising the drinking age. Officials say other measures include effective drunk driving laws and banning some alcohol advertising’.[1] 

In the recent past, restricting advertising for such products as cigarettes, in conjunction with actual smoking bans, has had beneficial effects, in the sense that nowadays smokers have become pariahs in many parts of the Western world. Consequently smokers’ numbers have dropped significantly, much to the chagrin of the big tobacco companies that are now heavily targeting developing countries with ad campaigns and other incentives. With regards to alcohol advertising, a number of actions have been taken in a number of countries over the past years. Austria for instance, a country in the centre of Europe with a population that is officially Catholic in outlook and practice, also has codes which restrict advertisements for beer and wine, whereas ads for spirits are completely banned on TV and radio. And, of even greater interest in the present context, no representations showing a connection with children, youngsters, driving or sports are allowed in advertisements for any kind of beverage or product containing alcohol in Austria. In Ireland, then, the government also controls the prices of beer and spirits, which are subsequently rather steep. In Finland, on the other hand, people are only allowed to purchase intoxicating beverages during set hours, while the prices are equally high. The Fins southern neighbours have serious problems with alcohol consumption. Last year, the BBC divulged that “Russians drink seriously. As a country they get through on average about 18 litres (32 pints) of pure alcohol a year per person”. In 2009 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev “kick-started his campaign” to lower the consumption of alcohol by his compatriots, calling their zeal to drink a “national disgrace”. Annually, 35,000 Russian die from alcohol poisoning. In Western Europe, there is now, and has been for some time, the unsettling trend of underage binge drinking, particularly in the UK, a country that sees a sizeable portion of its population spend every weekend in a drunken haze.

 


[1] “WHO Says Alcohol Abuse a Leading Cause of Death, Disability” VOA (15 February 2011). http://www.voanews.com/learningenglish/home/World-Health-Organization-Says-Alcohol-Abuse-is-an-International-Problem—116281509.html.