ANKARA Breaking secularists' taboos, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sparked a heated controversy by rejecting portrayal of beer and alcohol as the country's national drink, insisting that it is the non-alcoholic yoghurt drink ayran.
"Beer was unfortunately presented as a national drink," Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said at a symposium on global alcohol policy in Istanbul, Reuters reported on Saturday, April 27.
However, our national drink is ayran, he added, referring to the staple lunchtime refreshment of yoghurt, water and salt, usually swilled down with a meaty kebab.
Erdogan noted that during the single-party rule of the Turkish Republic's early years, now the country's main and staunchly secularist opposition party, state promotion of alcohol amounted to propaganda, Erdogan said.
He further heaped criticism on alcohol consumption, saying it would harm the Turkish lifestyle.
"There is no way you can defend as a lifestyle the consumption of alcohol which has no benefit to society, but on the contrary inflicts harm," Erdogan continued.
Approximately 99 percent of Turkey's population are Muslim, mostly Sunnis.
Islam takes an uncompromising stand in prohibiting intoxicants. It forbids Muslims from drinking or even selling alcohol.
The general rule in Islam is that any beverage that get people intoxicated when taken is unlawful, both in small and large quantities, whether it is alcohol, drugs, fermented raisin drink or something else.
Shares in Turkey's top listed dairy producer Pinar Sut, which makes ayran, rose 3 percent shortly after Erdogan's remarks.
But Erdogan's opposition to abortion has invited the ire of secularists, dividing Turkey's conservative Muslims on the one hand and secularists on the other.
"It's true, all of you drink ayran with your pasta inside your mosques," read one comment directed at Erdogan's official Twitter account immediately after Erdogan's comments.
"We take example from our FOREFATHER who drank our National Drink: raki," the message continued, referring to Turkey's founder, soldier-statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who was often photographed with a glass of the anisette spirit in hand.
"Erdogan, will you do a shot of ayran with me?" taunted another user on Twitter.
Others lamented the prime minister's intrusion into their lives: "What's it to you what the nation drinks? You go drink ayran. Leave me alone."
Yet, these concerns were unlikely to affect Turkey's AK party which first came into power in 2002 elections, and since then it has won two consecutive elections with a thumping majority.
The party is riding on a wave of popularity that it has earned due to success of its economic policies, turning Turkey from one of the weakest economies in Europe into becoming the 15th largest economy in the world.
Erdogan's government has imposed some of the highest consumption taxes on alcohol in the world.
Over the past year, other restrictions on Alcohol consumptions were applied, including decisions by an increasing number of municipalities to impose restrictions on drinking in public as well as on national advertising.
Most recently, it banned alcohol sales on all domestic and some international flights of its national carrier.
The measures have succeeded in decreasing percentage of alcohol consumption, reaching only six percent of Turkish households consumed alcoholic drinks in 2008, down from eight percent in 2003, according to the Betam research centre at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.