Drying out: Islam and the rise of prohibition culture

In the Middle Ages Islam had no problem with alcohol, now - from Sharia Patrols in the UK to flat out bans in Egypt -  the crackdown is gathering strength

Share
Related Topics

In the last few weeks, Al Jazeera has been posting videos on its global web site of Islamic vigilantes “patrolling”, as it puts it, the streets of Whitechapel ensuring that the various British citizens inhabiting its pavements are doing their best to conform to shar’ia law. A notorious instance involved an unfortunate, and wholly innocent, gay man who was told that he was “dirty” and should get out of the neighborhood immediately. “Yes,” he was forced to say, presumably under the threat of a boot in the groin, “I am dirty.”

The British mosques duly condemned the patrols, and the Metropolitan Police made its usual ineffectual vows. But the videos themselves, as far as I could see by watching them in Dubai that week, evoked very little disgust in readers sharing the Faith. It struck me immediately that there was very little reason that such patrols should not progress from the rarified joys of beating up homosexuals to demanding that people stop drinking in public in the same neighborhoods. Lo and behold, other videos show drinkers being forced to pour the contents of their cans on to the streets..

It would be easy to dismiss these patrols as outliers. But then again, who twenty years ago would have foreseen them ever happening in the first place? The Islamic revival, for want of a better word, which is changing the face of two civilizations at once – ours and Islam’s – has not been flexible on the question of alcohol, any more than it has on the question of gay love.

Writing about Cairo recently, I made so bold as to mildly observe that the number of “baladi” bars in that once bibulous city has noticeably diminished. A few grizzled ex-pats chose to deny it, but most Cairenes are all too ready to lament the gradual erosion of their once free-ranging alcoholic night-life (the sale of alcohol has recently been banned altogether from settlements around the capital). The world of Om Khaltoum and Mafouz and Youssel Chahin was saturated in drink, but the Cairo of 2013 is headed in a very different direction. One might even claim that a link exists between the diminishment of overflowing bars and the increase in covered female heads. It is far from preposterous.

That the West does not understand what is happening in the Muslim world is an understatement. Alcohol is only a small part of this unfolding drama, but it is also highly symbolic. While living in Turkey last year I could see the way the prices of drinks in my local Macro supermarket in Istanbul were inched higher as the Erdogan government forced up the taxes  as an act of discouragement – the Prime Minister once famously declared that there was no need to turn grapes into wine when you can just as easily eat them. When I asked a close friend of mine about this, the famous Millyet journalist Asli Aydintasbas, she replied “Soon, drinking itself will be like an act of defiance. It’ll be like a quiet protest.”

Many towns in the center of Turkey have quietly gone dry. And I see much the same thing in many countries, from Indonesia to the Islamic south of Thailand to provinces of Malaysia like Kelantan. Saudis can still drive to Bahrain and douse themselves in Johnny Walker Blue Label, but the Gulf is a curious exception.

Alcohol is only a small part of this unfolding drama

In many ways, it’s ironic. Islam in the Middle Ages, in its golden age, didn’t have a moral problem with alcohol to any noticeable degree. Baghdad and Istanbul, to give two examples, boasted hundreds of taverns and wine shops and distilleries – the 17th century Ottoman historian Evliya Celebi enumerated the scores of varieties of raki that the citizens of Istanbul loved and guzzled daily. The founders of several modern Islamic nations, like Turkey’s Ataturk and Pakistan’s Muhammad Ali Jinnah, were fond of their tipple. The rising paranoia about alcohol is, in fact, a contemporary phenomenon. The Pakistanis of five decades ago would probably be quite surprised to see the secretive “permit rooms” that now dot the urban landscape of Islamabad – places where non-Muslim can buy booze my means of a permit book in which every unit is stamped by the police.

Of course, symbols matter. The prohibitions against alcohol in the Koran are few and far between and not especially severe. What has made the prohibition shrill and repressive now is the way Westerners are perceived to abuse their sundry liquid addictions. Nowhere is this more filled with tension than in the UK, a country with a large radicalized Muslim population and a native one which can be loutish when high on the pleasures of booze. Expect the patrols, then, to increase. The older Islamic traditions of tolerance, meanwhile, will take time to revive, but revive they will.

I was recently rebuked by a British reviewer for suggesting that raki, Turkey’s national drink, was “healing.” How on earth, she cried, could a drink as highly alcoholic as raki be healing? Well, for one thing, that’s the way Turks have seen it for hundreds of years; and for another they do not mean it literally or medically, as should be obvious to anyone who knows that country. Ask any Turk who drinks if raki is healing and he or she will smile knowingly and tell you all the ways it heals mind and body and soul. How ironic that a Westerner would not grasp this.

The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker’s Journey by Lawrence Osborne is published by Harvill Secker.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary teaching roles in Ipswich

£21552 - £31588 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education re...

Science teachers needed in Norwich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Science teachers requ...

Semi Senior Accountant - Music

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful, Central London bas...

English teachers required in Lowestoft

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified English tea...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A homeless person sleeps in the streets  

This is why I am sleeping rough outside the party conferences

Max J Freeman
Strikes were carried out by manned air force and navy aircraft (File photo)  

Syria air strikes: President Assad now has the enemy he always wanted – Islamist terrorism

Kim Sengupta
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits