Are all taboos justified?

Drinking alcohol has been banned in Iran in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Drinking alcohol has been banned in Iran in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran's ban on alcohol has led to a rise in methanol poisonings, revealing the deadly side of prohibition. The situation mirrors past failures in the U.S. and contrasts with more lenient policies in countries like Turkey. By Niloofar Gholami

By Niloofar Gholami

New York City, Christmas 1926: more than 80 people died after drinking poisonous alcohol. It was the height of prohibition, the nationwide alcohol ban that had begun in the United States in 1920. 

Beyond the ban, the federal government had taken the extreme measure of adding high amounts of methanol to alcohol in the hope that people would taste it and be put off.

But drinkers were not discouraged, and thousands died as a result, according to author Deborah Blum in her 2010 book "The Poisoner's Handbook". Reports indicate that at least 10,000 people died due to the nationwide ban. Ultimately, prohibition was a failure, and it was repealed in 1933.

Iran has been trying something similar since 1979, and it too, has gone badly. Following the Islamic Revolution, Iran strictly prohibited alcohol consumption, with severe consequences ranging from flogging and fines to potential imprisonment.

But that didn't stop people from drinking. As in the United States, the ban led to the creation of underground networks to brew alcohol and a mafia that some experts believe has deep ties to the government itself. 

Alcohol poisonings on the rise in Iran

"Sometimes drinking is our only reason for happiness and a small chance to have fun," said 25-year-old Mahsa*. Even so, after at least 300 people were hospitalised and 40 died due to alcohol poisoning in recent weeks, she has quit. "I think they have succeeded in scaring us to stop drinking alcohol."

A couple sitting in a bar in Istanbul, Turkey, with two glasses of wine (image: Shady Al-Assar/ZUMA/picture alliance)
تعد تركيا من أكثر البلدان المسلمة تسامحاً في قضية شرب الكحول: قال يوسف أرسلان -عالم اجتماع في تركيا- إنه فيما يتعلق بقضية الخمور، فإن تركيا "تسلك نهجاً ليبرالياً ولا تمنع شرب الكحول. ومع ذلك فهناك أعراف اجتماعية تنظم الأمر بمعزل عن القانون". وفي السياق ذلك، فقد يرى الزائر لتركيا أنه في الوقت الذي تبقى محلات بيع الخمور في بعض المحافظات مغلقة خلال شهر رمضان فإنه بعضها الآخر تفتح أبوابها، ما يعني أن الأمر مرجعه "العرف الاجتماعي" وليس القانون. في الصورة داخل المقال: مقهى في إسطنبول - تركيا.

Observers say the ban is clearly not working. "Unfortunately, in recent years we have seen an increase of about 20-30% annually in the number of people who were poisoned or developed [adverse] side effects from drinking methyl alcohol," Mohammad Kazem Attari, a U.S.-based Iranian physician and researcher, revealed.

"As alcohol poisoning was very widespread in the cities at the same time, some suspect it was intentional, or rather a mistake by a local producer who added impurities to drinks during production," Attari said, comparing it to the recent wave of suspected deliberate mass poisonings of Iranian schoolgirls.

Dangers of bootleg alcohol production

"I had always heard about poisonings and death by methanol, but I really never believed it could happen to me," said 27-year-old Erfan*.  Usually, Erfan only drank booze bought from a dealer he had become acquainted with through friends. But at a party one evening he had a methanol-laced drink. When he lost his eyesight and felt other frightening symptoms, his friends rushed him to a medical centre. 

Alcohol can affect vision, digestion and brain function, cause permanent disabilities, or be fatal. Erfan was lucky: His loss of sight was only temporary. "I had a phobia for a long time, but now I try to be more careful," he said. "My father and I have even started to make our own wine."

Turkey: a compromise between tradition and modernity

Other Muslim-majority countries are more flexible when it comes to the sale of regulated alcohol. In Turkey, for example, adults can easily buy alcohol legally. During the holy month of Ramadan, it is common to see people sitting in bars enjoying their preferred alcoholic beverages. Raki, the national drink, is an integral part of Turkish culture. Despite the ease of access, Turks only drink one and a half litres of alcohol per person per year on average. 

"Turkey is not prohibitionist but libertarian when it comes to alcohol. However, there are also lines that the sociological structure weaves independently of laws," explained Turkish sociologist Yusuf Arslan. While liquor shops in some provinces keep their workplaces closed during Ramadan and Kandil holy nights, there are no closures in other provinces. "This de facto situation is determined not by laws, but by the sociological structure," he said. 

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John Leach watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of prohibition 1920-1933 (image: Wikipedia)
مات عشرات الآلاف من التسمم الكحولي إبان حظر الخمور في الولايات المتحدة الأمريكية: في عام 1926 وفيما كان سكان مدينة نيويورك يحتفلون بعيد الميلاد وقعت كارثة بوفاة أكثر من 80 شخصاً بعد شرب خمور سامة فيما اُعتبر ذروة حظر شرب الكحول في الولايات المتحدة الذي بدأ عام 1920. وإلى جانب الحظر اتخذت السلطات الأمريكية في حينه إجراءات تتمثل في إضافة كميات كبيرة من الميثانول إلى الكحول على أمل أن يوقف مذاقه السيء الناس عن شرب الخمور، بيد أن العكس ما حصل؛ إذ استمر الأمريكيون في شرب الكحوليات فيما لقي الآلاف مصرعهم جراء "الكحول السام".

At the same time, alcohol prices in Turkey remain consistently high compared to several EU countries. The cost, which includes hefty taxes, as well as the country's poor economic situation, has led to the growth of underground alcohol production. As in Iran, that can be deadly: Every year around 100 people lose their lives from alcohol poisoning.

But a ban on alcohol has not been a subject of discussion in Turkey, even under conservative administrations, Arslan said. He compared regulations on bars, drinking in public and when alcohol can be sold as well as the ban on liquor advertising to measures in Europe.

These were issued in the interest of public health, rather than with the logic of prohibition. "Similar regulations have been applied in the Netherlands and France, where they have similar concerns," he said. 

Many people in Iran can only dream of an end to prohibition and look back on the situation four decades ago. "I hope someday soon we can live a normal life without fear or unnecessary risk, just like the rest of the world," a young Iranian woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, told DW.

Niloofar Gholami

© Deutsche Welle 2023

*names changed for security reasons.