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

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

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Executive - OTE £50,000

£19000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Executive is re...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Financial Accountant

£30000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The company was established in ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate / Junior Web Developer

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Data Analyst (SQL Server, T-SQL, data)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Royal fans Maria Scott, left Amy Thompson and John Loughrey wait outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in London  

Royal baby: The commodification of an unborn child

Jane Merrick
 

If I were Prime Minister: I'd make sure half of Parliament was female, and have a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment

Gill Slocombe
Ed Miliband interview: 'There is only one party standing up for the integrity of the UK'

'There is only one party standing up for the integrity of the UK'

Ed Miliband talks zero hours contracts, non-doms and the NHS
Libya's criminals undermine attempts to prop up a collapsing state

Libya's criminals undermine attempts to prop up a collapsing state

It's not just people-smuggling rackets, reports Patrick Cockburn
General Election 2015: On the campaign trail in Rochdale – the town globalisation left behind

On the campaign trail in Rochdale

The town globalisation left behind
Bugsy Malone is back: Plenty of splurge guns but no twerking teens

Bugsy Malone is back

There's plenty of splurge guns but no twerking teens in the Lyric Theatre's reopening production
Should we be drinking milk? Arguments for and against dairy

Should we be drinking milk?

Arguments for and against dairy
Ivor Novello awards 2015: Meet James Napier, the backroom hitmaker for Sam Smith and Clean Bandit

Meet James Napier

The backroom hitmaker for Sam Smith and Clean Bandit is the hottest name in pop you've never heard of
14 best girls' summer dresses

14 best girls' summer dresses

Whether they're on the beach in the south of France or in the garden at nan's house, there's a dress to keep them cool, comfortable and looking fabulous
David Haye interview: Thought of Las Vegas lures Haye back to the ring

Thought of Las Vegas lures Haye back to the ring

Having overcome an injury that seemed to have ended his career, the heavyweight realised there were things left undone – a fight at the spiritual home of boxing
Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie