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Obama's speech: The view from Istanbul

I woke up early this morning to watch the speech in Brooklyn, but here is how a friend in Istanbul described the scene there: 

From the open door of a tea house in Tarlabasi, a densely populated neighborhood of narrow streets, an unusual sound was heard — the news. Gone were the popular strains of Turkish pop, or loud reactions to the latest football match. In the place of such a familiar symphony was the voice of President Barack Hussein Obama as he delivered his much anticipated speech in Cairo today.

At points his speech was honored by a brief pause in the rolling dice and shuffling of tavla tiles, the Turkish name for backgammon.

"That is why we welcome efforts like Saudi Arabian King Abdullah's Interfaith dialogue and Turkey's leadership in the Alliance of Civilizations" received a momentary pause and general comments of approval.

More vigorous head nodding was elicited by a reference to headscarves, an emotionally charged issue in Turkey. For many years the freedom to wear the Islamic headscarf, which is strictly forbidden in public buildings in Turkey, has been the subject of vigorous debate in Turkey.

"Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit — for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism."

(There is little doubt that elsewhere in the country secularists who see the headscarf as a dangerous impediment to the secular foundation of the Turkish state were at the same moment sighing and shaking their heads.)

Of course, for most Turks, the latest speech in Cairo carried only a sliver of the energy and attention as Obama's two-day, two-city charm offensive in Turkey this past April.

The visit, during which the American president toured a mosque, laid a wreath at the grave of the founder of the Turkish republic, and announced before the Turkish parliament that "the United States is not and will never be at war with Islam," set the tone for the more policy-oriented Cairo speech.

Overall, Turkish sentiment toward the president's efforts have been met by a tempered optimism. In an opinion piece in yesterday's issue of Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, columnist Faruk Logoglu expressed the cautious realism that has tended to define Turkish popular sentiment toward the U.S. president:

"Obama is not a miracle worker. He is gifted, different and charismatic, but he is still only a political leader and a human being. He is trying to restore moral ground and improve the global
standing of his country, but he cannot do it in a single stroke."