Alcohol Control Policies in Turkey and The Role of Yeşilay From 1920 until Today

par Elife Biçer-Deveci

Alcohol drinking cultures in Muslim countries have for several years been the focus of researchers from various disciplines. Pioneers in the field such as François Georgeon and Rudi Matthee revealed the diversity within drinking cultures in Muslim countries[1] and uncovered a field for scholars to analyse the effects of the political context, modernisation and globalisation on drinking habits in Muslim countries.[2] Based on the findings of this research literature, we can assume that alcohol control politics, such as prohibitionist regimes or restricting laws on trade, are without serious long-term effects on the change of drinking culture. Alcohol control policies serve rather to maintain control over individuals, to construct collective identities and to establish a cultural hegemony which remains limited to a small group of the society.[3] In this paper, I aim to elaborate some hypotheses about the issue of alcohol in the context of the Ottoman Empire/Turkey from the late nineteenth century until today. The paper presents different phenomena related to the issue of alcohol. My main argument is that the issue of alcohol functions as an important feature in interactions between religion, politics and international relations. The interdependence of these different spheres can be observed in the development of alcohol control policies. The hypotheses are based on a case study of Yeşilay (Green Crescent) in Turkey, a non-state organisation founded in 1920 by religious leaders and physicians. This organisation has since its foundation acted at the interface of state, religion, science and international relations.

During the period of intensified economical, personal and institutional relations with European countries and the USA since the late nineteenth century,4 prohibitionist ideas, based on scientific insights in Western countries, circulated in the late Ottoman Empire/Turkey. Debates about these ideas caused a gradual change of semantics and reference frameworks regarding the issue of alcohol and prior Islamic doctrine. This change is a result of the process of modernisation and secularisation of institutions. Within this process, religious authorities lost their monopoly position in producing knowledge and interpretation of the issue of alcohol. In public debates, they were replaced more and more by individuals who had scientific expertise and were shaped by notions of the secular order of society. Scientific debates about the ‘alcohol problem’ served to deprive clerics of their monopoly of knowledge on this subject and gave the society a new political understanding.

The outcome of an Islamic intellectual movement under the lead of Beddiuzzaman Said Nursi (1877–1960) is a reaction to secularisation processes in the late Ottoman Empire/Turkey. Said Nursi inspired a new interpretation of the Quran which seeks a complementary approach to science.[4] Members of this movement founded the anti-alcohol organisation Yeşilay Cemiyeti (Green Crescent Association) in 1920. The board included religious leaders Sheikh ul-Islam Ibrahim Efendi (1864–1933)[5] and Beddiuzzaman Said Nursi. Among other physicians on the board was Prof. Dr. Mazhar Osman (1884–1951).[6] The mixed constitution of the board, with religious people and physicians, is still maintained. The purpose of the foundation was the fight against alcohol. In the 1970s, it started to broaden its aim to include issues related to drugs, and recently issues concerning addiction to technology.[7] Since its foundation, Yeşilay has published its monthly organ regularly, along with occasional books and reports focusing on certain specific issues.[8]

The Yeşilay organisation pursued successful initiatives for the respective prohibition and restriction of alcohol consumption and trade in Turkey. The prohibitionist law in Turkey from 1920 to 1926 is traced back to the initiatives of Yeşilay.[9]

In Yeşilay’s campaigns and publications, and in discussions initiated by it, scientific findings, Islamic concepts of abstinence and concepts of the Western temperance movement were amalgamated into a resistance movement against Turkish modernising policies. The Turkish state, under the lead of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, pursued modernisation according to the European model of modernity. In the face of these policies and westernising processes in various spheres of society, the issue of alcohol became a battlefield for Islamic and conservative groups against the state. Islamic normative concepts of abstinence, encased in public health policy arguments, have their roots in the first half of the twentieth century. Supporters of these concepts became political authorities towards the end of the twentieth century, such as the political party Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Party of Justice and Progress) under the lead of today’s State president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The alcohol consumption of Muslim populations, being largely accepted, was increasingly regarded in the 1920s as a sign of social degeneration and was accusingly traced back to the influence of Western culture over the Muslim culture. In debates about the alcohol problem, defensive attitudes against the spread of the Western lifestyle within Muslim society were crystallised. Alcohol consumption served at the same time as a social stigma of local Christian communities and therewith as justification for the ethnic-religious homogeneity of the nation, particularly in the context of radicalised nationalism in the first half of the twentieth century. In this way, a national distinction was produced by the dividing line between temperance and alcohol consumption.

The issue of alcohol was also an object of action for the Ottoman and Turkish states. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, state authorities in the Ottoman Empire discovered the economic potential that could be realised through the production and trade of alcohol. For instance, the Ottoman state signed several trade contracts with European powers regarding the import of alcoholic liquor.[10] At about the same time, the Ottoman state adopted restrictive measures to control and limit alcohol trade and consumption within the Muslim population.[11]

From its beginning, Yeşilay was in contact with the International League Against Alcoholism with its headquarters in Berlin, and actively participated in international anti-alcohol congresses.[12] It also took part in international congresses on addiction and alcoholism in Turkey.[13] In 2016, Yeşilay initiated the foundation of the International Federation of Green Crescent Organisation. Representatives from various countries and regions were invited to the foundation congress.[14] Yeşilay’s international relations reflect the political context of Turkey. In the 1920s, the association was connected with Western anti-alcohol organisations and followed the Western-oriented principles of the Turkish government. Today, it seeks closer relations with organisations in Muslim countries. This orientation is in accordance with the diplomatic relations of Turkey under the lead of AKP.

[1] Georgeon, François (2002). Ottomans and drinkers: The consumption of alcohol in Istanbul in the nineteenth century. In: Eugene L. Rogan (Ed.), Outside In. On the Margins of the Modern Middle East. London, New York, pp. 7–30; Matthee, Rudolph P. (2005). The Pursuit of Pleasure. Drugs and Stimulants in Iranian History, 1500–1900. Princeton, NJ.; Matthee, R. (2014). Alcohol in the Islamic Middle East: Ambivalence and ambiguity. Past & Present 222 (suppl. 9), pp. 100–125; See also Kueny, Kathryn (2001). The Rhetoric of Sobriety. Wine in Early Islam. Albany.

[2] See among others, Gangloff, Sylvie (2015). Boire en Turquie. Pratiques et Représentations de l’Alcool. Paris; Woodall, G. Carole (2015). Decadent nights: A cocaine-filled reading of 1920s post-Ottoman Istanbul. In: Michela Ardizzoni and Valerio Ferme (Eds.), Mediterranean Encounters in the City. Frameworks of Mediation Between East and West, North and South. Lanham, pp. 17–36; Powell, Arthur James (2004). Only in paradise: Alcohol and Islam. In: C. K. Robertson (Ed.), Religion & Alcohol. Sobering Thoughts. New York, pp. 95–110.

[3] These aspects of control policies and temperance movement are mentioned in: Heath, Deana (2010). Purifying Empire. Obscenity and the Politics of Moral Regulation in Britain, India and Australia. New York; Tschurenev, Jana, Spöring, Francesco and Grosse, Judith (2014). Einleitung: Sittlichkeitsreform, Biopolitik und Globalisierung. In: Judith Grosse (Ed.), Biopolitik und Sittlichkeitsreform. Kampagnen gegen Alkohol, Drogen und Prostitution 1880– 1950. Frankfurt am Main, S. 7–46; Tyrrell, Ian (2013). Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire. The Creation of America’s Moral Empire. Princeton University Press. 4 Zürcher, Erik-Jan ([1993] 2004). Turkey. A Modern History. New York.

[4] See Şerif, Mardin (1989). Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey. The Case of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi. Albany.

[5] İpşirli, Mehmet and Beydilli, Kemal (2000). İbrâhim Efendi, Haydarîzâde. In: İslam Ansiklopedisi, vol. 21, pp. 297– 298, http://www.islamansiklopedisi.info/dia/ayrmetin.php?idno=210297 (last accessed 28.03.2018).

[6] Naderi, Sait (2004). Mazhar Osman ve Türkiye’de nöroşirürjinin doğuşu [Mazhar Osman and The Beginnings of Neurosurgery in Turkey]. Izmir.

[7] The organisation has published the journal Addicta. The Turkish Journal on Addiction since 2014. It contains articles about addiction to technology, among other addiction issues.

[8] In the 1920s, Yeşilay’s publication organ was Hilal-i Ahdar. In 1930, the journal was renamed İçki Düşmanı. For a current list of publications, see https://www.yesilay.org.tr/en/documents/green-crescent-publishing (last accessed 28.03.2018).

[9] Karahanoğulları, Onur (2008). Birinci Meclisin Içki Yasağı. Men-i Müskirat Kanunu [The Prohibition of Alcohol by the First National Assembly]. Ankara, pp. 6–7.

[10] The trade contracts are documented in Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi (BAO), HR. ID 291, 1–10.

[11] For example, persecution of drunken persons by the police in 1890s: BAO, MF. MKT 1201, 69.

[12] Gökay, Fahrettin K. (1932). Yeşil Hilal Ne Yaptı? [The Activities of Green Crescent]. Istanbul.

[13] For example, Global Alcohol Policy Symposium, 26–27 April 2013 in Istanbul, a joint project with the World Health Organisation; International Symposium on Drug Policy and Health, 29 September–1 October 2014 in Istanbul; Third International Congress on Addiction to Technology, 3–4 May 2016 in Istanbul.

[14] These countries are Albania, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Cote D’Ivoire, Cyprus, Democratic Republic of Congo, Georgia, Indonesia, Karadag, Kenya, Kosovo, Libya, Macedonia, Malaysia, Mali, Nigeria, Palestine, Senegal, Serbia, Somali, Sudan, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda and Yemen.


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