|Better days ahead for Turkey? The seaside at Izmir, a cosmopolitan town near Istanbul
The cause -- anger at repressive government -- is similar to the Arab Spring uprising we've seen in other Muslim countries. But this is different for a lot of reasons, and one is that the right to drink alcohol was the spark.
Some US media are reporting that protests took off when the Turkish government announced plans to convert a park into a shopping mall. But that wasn't the real beginning. Ten days ago, the socially conservative Turkish government pushed through a bill banning retail alcohol sales between 10 pm and 6 am and also banned alcohol advertising of any kind, and protests began.
This was the last straw for the many social moderates who live in Istanbul. They took to the streets in a protest that we haven't seen the last of yet.
I went to Turkey last year for the European Wine Bloggers' Conference, and stayed on to visit a number of Turkish wineries. I had some interesting off-the-record discussions. Turks with a government license to make and sell wine do not want to be quoted criticizing the government. Some people told me that the reason the EWBC was in Turkey in the first place is that the government wants foreigners to get interested in Turkey's wines so there will be less of them to sell at home.
|Vineyards in eastern Turkey, where grapes were first domesticated and are often still farmed the same way
Turkey's wine industry is in interesting times. As recently as 2003, the government owned the nation's largest winery and it made crap wine basically on purpose. Today, wine quality has never been better, and winemakers (some from the US and France) are discovering the charms of indigenous grapes in an area where grapevines were originally domesticated.
But the Turkish government isn't exactly supporting this nascent industry. It taxes alcohol production nearly 50%, and there's another 18% VAT on sales. Ordinary table wines sell in Istanbul for $75 or more.
Increasingly, people in Istanbul can afford this indulgence -- the economy is booming, a contrast to neighboring Greece. Istanbul has plenty of mosques and most people are Muslim, but it's a cosmopolitan European city with great food and a great restaurant culture.
However, go to eastern Turkey, basically anywhere east of Ankara, and you're in another culture entirely. Some grape growers require companies buying their crop to sign a statement saying it won't be used to make alcohol. Most restaurants don't serve alcohol and when people do drink, they do so surreptitiously. Politically, the money in Turkey comes from Istanbul, but there are lots of votes in the east.
|45% alcohol, but not in the Koran
Turkey plays a crucial role in world politics for a number of reasons: it's the most secular of large Muslim nations. Geographically, it sits in a volatile area. The US has long invested time and money into good relations with Turkey and that has been a great investment. So you know the White House is carefully watching these riots, with mixed feelings. The authoritarian, increasingly Islamic government of Turkey isn't a natural US ally, but it has in fact been a good friend to the US, cooperating much more than not on any number of issues involving Syria, Israel, Russia, etc.
|Istanbul has lively nightlife, but that is under threat
Street protests in Turkey are a challenge to US foreign policy, especially as they are currently disorganized expressions of disagreement. But while you watch the coverage and wonder which side you should be on emotionally, keep in mind that for many people in those squares, they're fighting for their right to have a glass of raki, wine or beer, and that's something we should support.