- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2008

ISTANBUL — When Turkish pop singer Aslizen Yentur sent the promotional video for her first album to the country’s top music station, she was told the shots of a wine bottle-laden dinner table had to go.

“I thought it was a joke,” the singer said. “The album is called ‘Cheers.’ The song is a Greek tavern song. Was I supposed to sip yoghurt drink?”

Her arguments cut no ice. When Kral TV broadcast the clip earlier this month, only dancing remained, plus shots of Miss Yentur on a red divan.

Kral TV officials were unavailable to comment on their decision, which has no basis in Turkish law. But the censorship occurred as the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK), Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog, works on regulations that would ban scenes “encourag[ing] consumption of alcohol.”

Leaked in mid-January, the plans sparked outrage — and a defensive justification from the watchdog. The draft, it insisted in a press release, is merely bringing Turkey, a candidate for European Union membership, in line with EU norms.

The bill clearly has many supporters. Nearly half the complaints RTUK received last year were from viewers upset at what they considered the excessive visibility of alcohol — and cigarettes — on TV.

Yet critics point out that European alcohol regulations pertain to advertising, not broadcasting in general. For them, the regulation epitomizes the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s worrying turn toward religious-tinged populism.

“Drink was always an issue for conservative opinion, but no government paid attention to it,” said Mehmet Ali Birand, a prominent commentator. “Now the AKP seems to be saying ‘Let’s give them a hand.’ ”

Miss Yentur is not the new puritanism’s only victim. Last week, 20 bar owners in the city of Diyarbakir went to court after the local governor gave them a month to move the bars to a designated district on the outskirts of the city.

Government efforts to create designated “red streets” for bars were thrown out by the courts in 2005, the bar owners point out.

Turkey’s wine industry is also struggling, following a 400 percent increase in taxes since the AKP came to power.

“Making wine these days is like selling snails in a Muslim neighborhood,” said vineyard owner Cem Cetintas, using a common Turkish phrase for something contradicting religious and cultural norms.

An Islamic-rooted party whose leaders are all teetotalers, AKP has received international plaudits for its pragmatic reformism since it first came to power in 2002. But its ham-handed efforts to end bans on head scarves in universities have polarized this most secular of Muslim countries, leading to unprecedentedly harsh rhetoric on both sides.

Savagely criticized by the secular media, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded in kind on Feb. 13. “You print pictures of totally naked women in newspapers against this nation’s moral values,” he said. “Have we interfered with that?”

He’s right: Even serious Turkish newspapers are full of headlines like “Mariah Carey topless.” But talk of moral values worries many Turks, who point to the increasing use of religious-tinged words like “caiz” (permissible) and “gunah” (sin).

“I fear that what we have here is the beginning of a major … change against secular lifestyles, a gradual profound Islamization of society,” said Hakan Yavuz, author of a book on Turkish Islam, and no bigoted secularist.

Barring the AKP’s return to its earlier pro-EU policies, he fears the process could prove difficult to stop.

But history suggests such pessimism may be premature.

AKP — and its appointees in nominally autonomous public bodies like RTUK — aren’t the first leaders to take a dim view of drinking. Faced with rebellions throughout Anatolia, the early-17th century Ottoman Sultan Murat IV responded by closing coffeehouses and taverns, potential centers of unrest.

The crackdown failed. Murat died shortly thereafter, at age 29, from drinking.

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