06/03/2013 07:59 am ET Updated Aug 03, 2013

Is Turkey Getting 'Dry'?

When I was new to the U.S. one very warm summer morning, I bought iced tea instead of coffee with my sandwich at the bagel shack while on my way to school. The beverage was too cold to hold, and I carried it in a paper bag. As soon as I stepped out of the store I heard two apparently homeless men cheering me on: "Bravo. You go, girl!" I couldn't understand the reason for their cheering. Then an old lady passed by, asking me, "Isn't it too early to start drinking?" It was very unusual on a normal New York morning to hear criticism about my choice of drink. I was shocked because I had no clue why she was interfering with my choice of beverage and I didn't understand the excited salute by the two men earlier. Later, when I learned you cannot drink alcohol in some public areas and that some people disguise their alcoholic beverages in a brown bag, I laughed so hard. Since then, I smile whenever I remember that morning: Two homeless men, an old lady and me holding my ice cold drink in a paper bag with a very confused face...

Perhaps this summer, I'll see people drinking from paper bags in public in Turkey, which nowadays, is witnessing heated debates about a bill that places strict restrictions on the sale of alcoholic beverages that was approved by Parliament last Friday.

I wonder how Turkey, a country where 83 percent of the population do not consume alcohol and only 1 percent of Turks drink every day, ended up in a discussion like alcohol consumption. To me the legislation, which bans the sale of alcoholic beverages between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., prohibits the sale of alcohol anywhere close to mosques and educational centers and brings stricter penalties on drunk driving, is reasonable. Many similar restrictions are applied in many other countries. In the U.S. there are even places where the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages is illegal. Also, a number of cities, towns and townships are known as "dry" cities, towns or townships because they prohibit the sale of alcohol. Hundreds of dry counties exist across the U.S., mostly in the South.

Yet many people are uncomfortable with the restrictions in Turkey because they interpret the process as an attempt to interfere with people's lifestyles and accuse the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) of gradually imposing an Islamic agenda. Apparently, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is working hard to prove that these people might be right in their concerns with his comment on the restrictive bill on alcohol, stating, "Those who want to drink can go home and do it there."

His statements claiming that the new rules seek to protect the public's health are far from convincing. Whether purposely or not, when he makes such comments without common sense it comes off as though he is interfering in the lifestyles of others based on his religious values.

The most unfortunate thing he has said was, "Why should a law [previously] adopted by some drunks be considered esteemed and not this law?" It's hard to believe that the prime minister of Turkey made this comment. A leader should be aware of whatever he says. He should remember that he is representing the Turkish people, especially the conservatives and religious groups, and his aim should be to represent their voice and not his ego. If he keeps talking like that, of course many people will have a negative response to whatever is done by his government.

For many people, the restrictions on advertising, selling and consuming alcohol is not simply about the public's health. For some, this could be a political investment by the AK Party before the upcoming elections to attract the votes of the pious conservatives, and for others, this could be a way of drawing attention away from the Syria issue.

A leader should pay attention to how he behaves and what he says to unite, and not polarize, his people. Governments have to equally embrace all their citizens to ensure normalization and reconciliation.

Also, as a society we should learn the importance of personal choice. If we really want to encourage future healthy generations, our aim should be to teach our youth how to respect diversity, personal preferences, lifestyles and freedoms of expression and religion.

This article previously was published in Today's Zaman.