Kulturkampf out in the open

A law on its way to being implemented — if ratified by the president — to restrict the advertising and selling of alcohol… A “kissing ban” on couples in subway stations by the Ankara Municipality so that passengers will “act in accordance with moral rules”… Demolishing a historic movie hall, Emek, in the Pera district of İstanbul without any debates or consultations… Following the case of Fazıl Say, another Turkish citizen, blogger Sevan Nişanyan, was sentenced to over a year in jail for “insulting Muslimness”…

The developments of the past week are all enough to keep global attention on Turkey and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the context of freedom, tolerance and peaceful coexistence in a diverse society.

The inevitable question is: What is the significance of these cases? Inevitable because these cases already have led to greater tension, bringing to the surface a long-feared kulturkampf (culture struggle) in this troubled country.

A cafeteria worker in Antalya, a popular tourism destination, attempted to burn his cafeteria in protest of the new alcohol ban but ended up wounding himself instead. Youths in Ankara, who tried to peacefully protest the “kissing ban” by kissing in public, were attacked by mobs, citing religion and shouting “There is no place for you to live here.” And we all know how brutally the police dispersed the small crowds who gathered in Pera to stop Emek movie theater from being turned into yet another shopping mall.

Should we take these incidents seriously? Yes, absolutely. Readers of columns by various pundits of this newspaper must have noticed that one of the most serious issues of Turkey being constantly revisited is whether a democratic and long-lasting balance will be established between the dominant “moral majority” and the “others.”

It has also been made clear that this ongoing struggle has not only national, but international significance as well.

Turkey’s primary issue, and an open-ended one, after a decade-long rule by the AKP is twofold: the boundaries of individual freedom and collective rights.

Since November 2002 — since the takeover of power by a party with Islamic roots — none of these two issues have been dealt with resolutely and convincingly. Individuals are left in the cold testing the limits of their freedoms — of expression, appearance, lifestyles — while the Kurdish settlement talks still stand as the defining test of whether the rights of groups will be recognized.

The frustrating part with the bans on alcohol, public kissing, etc., is that they were non-issues. The way they were imposed strongly signals, for many citizens, a new era in which the tutelage has changed from an authoritarian secularism to authoritarian morality.

Just as the kissing ban is ridiculous, creating a problem out of nothing, the statements in favor of alcohol restrictions lack reason, failing entirely to convince anyone.

Is Turkish society bleeding under alcoholism and alcohol-induced violence? “According to [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] OECD figures, the annual alcohol consumption per capita in Turkey is only 1.5 liters (0.4 gallon) for people over 15 — the lowest average by far among OECD countries. The average of the 27-member EU is 10.7 liters. Moreover, there is no indication that alcohol consumption in Turkey is increasing at an alarming rate. … Alcoholism is not a social problem in Turkey. There is no convincing indication either that it will become so unless strict measures are taken,” wrote Kadri Gürsel in Al-Monitor.

It is not rocket science to figure out that prohibitions lead to illegal activities and abuses. The BBC’s figures on Iran, for example, show large amounts of alcohol smuggling and rising alcoholism due to bans.

The only alcohol-related issue, if any, threatening social order in Turkey is drunk driving.

But this is all about strict law enforcement, about zero tolerance in Turkey’s generally very lax traffic. In all other cases, it has no validity. Non alcohol-induced domestic violence against women, for example, demand a national campaign but the AKP remains unmoved.

All in all, the pumped-up kulturkampf unleashed by populist motives will only result in polarization and embitterment. It will fade further dreams of a free and tolerant society.

A pity that the pious do not raise their voices against such folly.