* Turkish PM pronounces ayran the national drink
* Comments jar with secularists, some take to Twitter
* Debate part of wider religious-secular tensions
By Jonathon Burch
ANKARA, April 27 If you are looking for one sure
way to split public opinion in Turkey, just bring up the word
That is what Turkey's often divisive prime minister did late
on Friday when he pronounced that the national drink was not
beer, nor the aniseed spirit raki - choice tipple of Turkey's
founding father - but the non-alcoholic yoghurt drink ayran.
Given the setting of his speech - a symposium on global
alcohol policy in Istanbul - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's
comments appeared far from controversial, but so sensitive is
the topic that the mere mention of it by the pious leader, known
for his dislike of alcohol, has Turkey's secularists up in arms.
During the single-party rule of the Turkish Republic's early
years by what is now the country's main - and staunchly
secularist - opposition party, state promotion of alcohol
amounted to propaganda, Erdogan said.
"Beer was unfortunately presented as a national drink.
However, our national drink is ayran," he said, referring to the
staple lunchtime refreshment of yoghurt, water and salt, usually
swilled down with a meaty kebab.
"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.
No sooner had he made his remarks, broadcast live on
television, than social media lit up with derisive comments
symptomatic of the gaping divide between 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
"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, while 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."
Behind the jibes lies a deeper unease among Erdogan's
opponents who say his government, which has its roots in
political Islam, is eroding the secular foundation of modern
Turkey, not least through its policies on alcohol.
Erdogan's government has imposed some of the highest
consumption taxes on alcohol in the world, and under its tenure
an increasing number of municipalities have imposed 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 government says it is not attempting to interfere in
people's lives and is simply trying to bring the country up to
European norms by controlling alcohol sales and protecting the
younger generation as it negotiates to enter the European Union.
But unlike Western countries, which also impose
restrictions, Turkey does not have an alcohol problem. 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.
For many Turks it is simply the prime minister's
authoritarian style they have an issue with. Often brusque in
manner, Erdogan can come across as a stern father, also
lecturing people on the dangers of cigarettes and even
suggesting how many children families should have.
But in a country where Erdogan has dominated politics
virtually unchallenged for the past decade, his word is final.
Shares in Turkey's top listed dairy producer Pinar Sut, which
makes ayran, rose 3 percent shortly after Erdogan's remarks.
(Writing by Jonathon Burch; editing by Mike Collett-White)