Turkey's liquor ban splits government, stymies tourist trade

A dozen restaurants and coffee shops at Istanbul's Sultan Ahmet Square -- where the famous Blue Mosque, the Ste. Sophia, and the Topkapi museum are situated -- can no longer serve beer or any alcoholic drink to tourists who want to relax after visiting these historic places. The reason: a government decree issued last fall that prohibits any restaurant or bar within 100 meters of a mosque, church, school, or public building to sell liquor to their customers.

The anti-alcohol rule puts a similar ban on restaurants and coffee shops in villages throughout the country.

Dozens of villages and small communities on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts have become tourist resorts in recent years, and numerous restaurants and bars operate in the vicinity of mosques, schools, or pubic buildings in the big cities. Istanbul alone counts 400 mosques, most of them old ones, which are tourist attractions and around which restaurants and bars are located.

When the decree was issued late last year, the tourist season was over, and few people paid attention to it. But now, as foreign visitors and Turkish vacationers prepare to spend their time off at the coast, the ban has become more noticeable -- and very controversial.

People in the tourist industry have been joined by politicians, newspapers, and intellectuals to protest the ban. Many hotel owners and tourist agents have lobbied the government in Ankara to cancel the decision. Ali Atmaca, owner of a motel in a village near the Mediterranean town of Kas, said, ``The local authorities have warned me against selling liquor or even beer. This is ridiculous. . . . It is natural that [tourists] would ask for a drink. How can I refuse to satisfy them?''

Even some mayors who are members of Prime Minister Turgut Ozal's conservative Motherland Party have attacked this new policy. Turgut Sen, mayor of the town of Side, where Cleopatra is said to have rested and drank wine, complained that foreign tourists who are refused liquor are cutting short their stay. ``This measure is going to kill tourism, if it is not repealed soon,'' he said.

Newspapers have reported that restaurants and bars are now serving wine or raki (Turkey's national drink) in disguised cups or mugs. There are also reports about some guided tours being canceled because of the ban.

The minister of tourism, Mukerrem Tascioglu, has admitted that the decree is damaging to Turkey's developing tourism industry. ``It is nonsense to have such a ban, but a law is a law,'' he said.

He has disclosed that the Cabinet will meet soon to ``amend'' the decree. If the amendment is approved, governors will be authorized to give liquor licenses to bars and restaurants in resort places during tourist season.

The minister has also admitted that the decision was taken without the approval of his ministry. In fact it was the pro-fundamentalist wing of the government that managed discretely to push through that decision.

The matter has become an important political issue, bringing to the surface the differences within the Motherland Party and within the government, and putting Prime Minister Ozal in an embarrassing situation.

The critics of the government and many intellectuals consider the ban a sign of the growing influence of fundamentalism and a deviation from the secular and progressive course taken by Turkey six decades ago.

The debate over the alcohol ban comes at a time when the ``religious'' faction in the Motherland Party seems to have consolidated its position, following the recent party convention. Ozal himself recognizes that there are three major undercurrents or rival groups within his party: the pro-liberals, the pro-nationalists (``activists'') and the pro-fundamentalists (``salvationists'').

As chairman of the party, Ozal tries to maintain his support by keeping a balance between these rival groups.

In this context, the ban on the sale of liquor in places near mosques and shrines is gaining a political significance. The way Ozal plans to solve the problem -- by amending but not repealing the law -- will be another subtle balancing act between the various rival groups which he still needs to rely on for support.

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