Turkey: Erdogan and the Politics of Drinking

At this point, Turks have become accustomed to having their moralizing Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, offer them tips on how to live. Erdogan has previously urged Turkish families to each have three children and, more recently, asked his fellow citizens to change their eating habits in order to decrease the amount of food they throw away.

Now the PM is wading into an even trickier subject: what should Turks drink. Reuters provides the details:

If you are looking for one sure way to split public opinion in Turkey, just bring up the word alcohol.

That is what Turkey's often divisive prime minister did late on Friday when he pronounced that the national drink was not beer, nor the aniseed spirit raki - choice tipple of Turkey's founding father - but the non-alcoholic yoghurt drink ayran.

Given the setting of his speech - a symposium on global alcohol policy in Istanbul - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's comments appeared far from controversial, but so sensitive is the topic that the mere mention of it by the pious leader, known for his dislike of alcohol, has Turkey's secularists up in arms.

During the single-party rule of the Turkish Republic's early years by what is now the country's main - and staunchly secularist - opposition party, state promotion of alcohol amounted to propaganda, Erdogan said.

"Beer was unfortunately presented as a national drink. However, our national drink is ayran," he said, referring to the staple lunchtime refreshment of yoghurt, water and salt, usually swilled down with a meaty kebab.

"There is no way you can defend as a lifestyle the consumption of alcohol which has no benefit to society, but on the contrary inflicts harm," Erdogan continued.

After his speech was criticized by some, Erdogan -- a noted teetotaler -- only fortified his previous remarks. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:

"For a healthy generation, my grandfather suggested me ayran as the national drink," he said during a speech at the Independent Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association's (MÜSİAD) 22nd General Assembly.

"Some people want to drink vodka or beer. May they help themselves and drink it, but we will accomplish the Article 58 in the Turkish Constitution," he said, referring to a provision that engaged the state to protect the citizens from harm, including drug and alcohol abuse.

This is not the first time the issue of alcohol and its consumption has caused controversy during the rule of Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP). Last year, for example, the PM got personally involved in an effort that ultimately led to a music festival that was being held on a private university campus losing its license to sell alcohol. “For God's sake, how can this happen? Can anyone allow alcohol to be sold on a school campus? Will the student go there to get drunk on alcohol or find knowledge?" Erdogan said at the time.

On the other hand, Erdogan's recent remarks have given ayran producers hopes that their beverage -- a favorite among small children and their doting mothers -- might be seeing its breakout moment. “We're definitely expecting that [Erdoğan's] comments are going to boost our sales in an appreciable way,” Harun Çallı, president of the Milk Producers and Exporters Union (ASÜD), told the Cihan news agency today. (Ayran has some catching up to do. As the Wall Street Journal points out, in 2012 Turkish drinkers consumed twice as much beer as ayran.)

But why only push ayran as Turkey's drink of choice? As some nostalgic Turks believe, their country's true national beverage is gazoz, Turkey's homegrown soda pop. Many diehard drinkers, meanwhile, swear by şalgam, spiced turnip juice. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the almost purplish concoction with a strong kick says Turkey much more than the highly-perishable and rather tame ayran.

Turkey: Erdogan and the Politics of Drinking

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