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15 December 2005

Alcohol ban fuels fear of Muslim rule in Turkey

A LARGE sign at the gates of Ankara's new council-run lakeside park and restaurant complex reads, "Consuming alcohol is forbidden

It is not alone. Across Turkey, restaurants managed by municipalities are implementing a dry policy, angering secular Turks who say the government is stamping a Muslim way of life on the country, even as it enacts western-leaning reforms in the hope of joining the European Union.


The Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has enacted a law giving mayors the power to issue drink licences and designate areas where alcohol can be consumed.

His party's mayors have been acting aggressively on their new rights, although they have not yet targeted privately owned establishments.

Mr Erdogan insists he has shed his Islamic activist past and that his party, while conservative, respects Turkey's secular principles. But many suspect Justice and Development is secretly implementing an Islamic vision.

"Let's not be fooled," Tufan Turenc, a political commentator, wrote in the mass-circulation newspaper Hurriyet. "[Mr Erdogan's party] is slowly wrapping the Islamic blanket around us."

It's not just the alcohol-free zones that are troubling secular Turks. Last month, the state-run standards institute announced it would introduce "halal" certificates for food that meets Muslim religious dietary requirements.

A new women-only gym and swimming pool run by Ankara council and plans for a mosque inside an Istanbul park that is already surrounded by mosques have also caused many Turks to suspect Islamic mores are creeping into official policy.

But Mr Erdogan's party rejects such charges. "Our programme aims to improve the welfare of all," Abdullatif Sener, the deputy prime minister, said. "Our party is not one which spreads ideology."

While the Koran discourages alcohol consumption, liquor is legal in Turkey; raki, a potent aniseed-based spirit, is the national drink.

The Ankara Bar Association has filed a lawsuit to try to overturn councils' right to restrict alcohol sales to certain areas, claiming it was unconstitutional and an affront to freedoms.

Last week, the Mediterranean resort of Antalya, which is run by Mr Erdogan's party, designated the whole city a "wet area" out of fear that an alcohol ban could hurt tourism.

But at Ankara's new complex on the shores of Lake Mogan, there is no alcohol on restaurant menus and visitors cannot drink in picnic areas. The city's oldest park, Genclik, is under renovation and will reopen late next year without its open-air bars.

"Those who want to take alcohol can go to facilities outside of the municipality-run places," Mr Erdogan said. "As a state institution, the municipalities can never set a bad example

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