WASHINGTON -- There are certain clues in foreign coverage that journalists overseas look for. Some of them are serious concepts or funny quotes or just plain words, but you know them when you see them, and you know that something has changed.
So it is with the simple word "alcohol," which as good readers know is capable of evoking both the extremes of hatred and the extremes of loving indulgence. Particularly when you see it derided or denied by a politically or religiously authoritarian government, watch out!
In Turkey, a country with Islam at its religious heart but secularism at the political heart that the great independence leader Ataturk willed his people a century ago, alcohol has always been available and respected as part of the culture. So when I began to hear the anti-alcohol statements of Turkey's Islamist party several months ago, I realized something was afoot.
There was nothing to be surprised about when, in the last week of May, small groups of demonstrators gathered in one of the few green spots of Istanbul, Gezi Park. The first ones were enraged that the government was chopping down beautiful old trees in the historic section. It would have ended there, had the government not reacted with police employing water cannons and arrests.
Nor did it help when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, elected three times for the Islamist Justice and Development Party and becoming known more and more as the "majoritarian president," stood up forthrightly to the use of Twitter by the demonstrators. Twitter, used to share ideas among the unhappy, was a "menace" to society, Erdogan said, and the demonstrators were "bums." Then he went off on a trip to northern Africa, letting the riots spread to 60 cities.
Typical of the reaction of the many professors, lawyers and doctors protesting Erdogan's "authoritarian turn," was Turkish-born Seyla Benhabib, professor of political science and philosophy at Yale University, when she wrote in The New York Times that, in the weeks preceding the demonstrations, "tempers were already flaring around new curbs on serving alcohol in public places ... The real problem, in a country where alcoholism is minimal, is Mr. Erdogan's 'culture war' against the country's secular classes and the illiberal form of democracy that he is advancing."
In his attempts to control sin -- and Americans can readily remember Prohibition in our own country, when its main effect was to build a vast and threatening underground Mafia state -- Erdogan told Turks not to eat white bread, but rather whole-grain bread, and told women to have at least three children per family. He is also against abortion.
After his third election to the presidency, he compared himself to the 16th-century Ottoman architect Sinan, who created Istanbul's most glorious monuments and, indeed, Erdogan's accomplishments have been many. In his three terms, he has made Turkey a force in the Middle East. He put one of eight of the country's generals in prison for one thing or another, and he has given Europe and America what they thought was an "Islamist democratic state" that could be an example for others. He wants to host the 2020 Olympics, and he has been planning for Turkey to be one of the world's 10 top economies.
But even as he proposed to dig a "second Bosporus" to connect the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and other grandiose plans, that was not what was irritating so many in the society. For the first time in history, there is a true middle class in Turkey, outside of the Islamist entrepreneurial business class that supports the prime minister, that simply does not want to be told like children what to eat, what to drink or what to think.
The prime minister's "majoritarianism" may well be a clue to understanding the rest of the new and alarming Islamist regimes in the region -- Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, possibly Libya or Syria. With Erdogan, majoritarianism means that if he gets 51 percent of the vote, he assumes he can do anything; he need not take into account whatsoever the needs and wants of the old secular part of the population, the people of Ataturk.
This, of course, is a serious time for all of this to come to a head. Egypt is in chaos. Syria, right next door, is sending thousands of refugees to Turkey and God only knows what else. The U.S. and Europe had counted upon Turkey, a NATO member, to act as a moderator in the region.
But what Turkey may be offering is less a moderator's conciliatory role than a new example of the problems absolutist regimes face, whether they know it or not.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)