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

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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.

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