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NBA player Enes Kanter’s criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made Kanter a target of the Turkish government.
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

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How NBA player Enes Kanter became a major enemy of Turkey’s president

The Celtics center is fighting a sometimes lonely battle against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Even a free summer basketball camp can turn into a geopolitical incident when Enes Kanter is involved.

Like this July, when the NBA player scheduled a camp at the Islamic Center of Long Island. That is, Kanter said, until the Turkish Consulate in New York threatened the mosque if it hosted Kanter’s clinic.

Why the Turkish government would care even a little bit about a kids’ basketball camp in the New York suburbs has everything to do with Kanter’s relentless criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Kanter was born in Switzerland to Turkish parents and raised in Turkey, but his outspokenness has now transformed him into persona non grata in the country. The Turkish government revoked his passport in 2017 and has accused him and his family members of terrorism. Kanter hasn’t been back to Turkey in years, or spoken to many of his family still living there. His NBA games have been censored in Turkey and he’s had to forego international team trips because of the threat of arrest abroad. This summer, his free sports camp also became a target.

“For me, it was just so sad that a foreign embassy in the United States had bullied an American mosque,” Kanter said of the incident. “For me, it was sad.”

Michael Balboni, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Long Island, told CNN at the time that both the Turkish Consulate and “[a] few members of the Turkish Community” had contacted the mosque about Kanter, “saying, ‘you need to check this guy out.’” Balboni said that they’d decided to postpone the basketball camp because they “don’t take sides” and they thought it “would take some air out of the hot air balloon and put the focus back on the event being about kids and basketball.”

In the end, Kanter — with the help of New York Rep. Kathleen Rice — found another spot in the area to host his 34th camp, one of 50 total he did this summer. But it was a reminder, for Kanter, that even here in the United States, Erdoğan’s influence isn’t easy to escape.

It’s also shaped the dual roles he’s created for himself, at 27: a professional basketball player and a pro-democracy activist.

“I think the NBA gives me a big platform, and so that’s why I’m trying to be a voice for all those innocent people who don’t have one,” Kanter told me in September in New York City. He’d was still in his workout gear and sneakers, his height making him impossible to miss in the hotel lobby.

Kanter was preparing for the season with the Boston Celtics, where he was excited for a fresh start with a new team (though he was sidelined at the start of the season with a knee injury). His other job, as a human rights advocate and Erdoğan critic, has in many ways only gotten more intense and complicated.

It’s personal for Kanter, as he and his family have been singled out by the Turkish government. But his story is also part of a larger crisis unfolding in Turkey, where, after a 2016 failed coup that tried to remove him from office, Erdoğan has consolidated power and purged perceived political opponents in the judiciary, police, and public sectors, jailing tens of thousands of civil servants, journalists, and other dissidents.

“What I’m trying to do is way bigger than my family,” Kanter told me. “Because my family is just one family and there are thousands and thousands of families out there. Their story is way worse than mine. And that’s why I have to create awareness of what’s going on.”

“It doesn’t matter if you’re an NBA player”

Kanter began playing professional basketball in the United States in 2011. That same year, he played for the Turkish national team in the 2011 Eurobasket, where Kanter recalls briefly meeting Erdoğan. There’s a picture out there somewhere, Kanter said, of him shaking the leader’s hand.

Erdoğan was prime minister at the time, a position that was abolished by a 2017 referendum that consolidated almost all power in the Turkish president, who was by that time, Erdoğan.

It is one of the clearest examples of Erdoğan’s authoritarian streak, which has only grown more potent since a July 2016 failed coup attempt.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks standing in front of Turkish flags.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gives a press conference in Budapest, Hungary, on October 8, 2018.
Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

Erdoğan blames a Turkish Muslim cleric and one-time close ally, Fethullah Gülen, for orchestrating that attempted 2016 uprising, though Gülen has denied it. Gülen has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, and Erdoğan desperately wants him extradited back to Turkey.

The US has refused to do so (though, it’s sometimes been murky under Trump). Military officers tied to the Gülen movement were involved in the coup, though not exclusively, and there’s no evidence that Gülen organized or directly incited it.

Gülen preaches a moderate, inclusive form of Sunni Islam that emphasizes the importance of education outside of traditional religious schools. The movement, (known in Turkey as Hizmet, or “the service”), is best known for its vast network of schools in Turkey and around the world, including in the US.

Erdoğan and Gülen’s alliance broke apart in the 2010s as Erdoğan and his supporters began to see Gülenists, who were deeply embedded in Turkey’s civilian and military bureaucracy, as political threats. In May 2016, Erdoğan classified Gülen’s movement as a terrorist group. After the coup attempt, Erdoğan intensified his purge of those associated with the cleric — along with pretty much any other dissidents — in the military, police, justice system, and civil society.

Kanter, who attended a Gulënist school in Turkey, counts himself among Gülen’s allies, which is perhaps one of the main reasons he became a target of the Turkish president. Kanter said he was with Gülen the night of the coup, where the cleric cried and prayed for his country. Kanter continues to back him, but he also told me, “If I see something wrong in this movement, I will speak up about it, too.”

Kanter and his family have paid for his connections to the cleric. In August 2016, his family wrote a letter denouncing Kanter for his affiliation with Gülen. “With a feeling of shame I apologize to our president and the Turkish people for having such a son,” the handwritten letter, signed by Kanter’s father, Mehmet Kanter, said.

Kanter responded on Twitter with a statement, written in Turkish, announcing: “Today I lost those who for 24 years I called ... my family ... My own father wanted me to change my surname. The mother who gave birth to me rejected me,” Kanter said.

“May God take every second of my life and give it to my brave Teacher... From now on my mother, father and siblings are (the)... devoted members of Hizmet,” he continued. He signed the statement, “Enes (Kanter) GULEN.”

It’s not clear whether Kanter’s family was pressured or coerced to publicly disown Kanter. The NBA player says he hasn’t had contact with his dad, or many other members of his family in Turkey, in years.

And in June 2018, Kanter’s dad, a genetics professor, was charged with membership in a terrorist group for his alleged ties to Gülen. The trial has been repeatedly delayed. In September, it was scheduled for October 10. Kanter predicted it would be postponed a few months. Sure enough, it’s been rescheduled until January 21, 2020.

Kanter says his dad is innocent and that the trial keeps getting postponed because the Turkish government is simply trying to detain his father and his family, preventing them from leaving the country.

“It’s tough, because it doesn’t matter if you’re an NBA player, doesn’t matter how much money you make, how many people are around — in the end those people are your family, and you want them to be around you,” Kanter said. “Just because [you’re] talking about good causes, talking about democracy, justice, and freedom, human rights, they’re keeping him there? That’s what drives me crazy.”

Being pursued by the Turkish government has also affected Kanter’s career. In May 2017, Kanter said he was detained in Romania after authorities told him his passport was invalid. Kanter had been in Indonesia, where he was hosting a basketball clinic, but fled over fears that the Turkish government had contacted local authorities to track him down. In Romania, he was held over issues with his passport, which he said the Turkish government canceled because of his political views. He was finally able to get to London and then New York, reportedly with the help of the NBA and the State Department.

In January 2019, he sat out a team trip to London with the New York Knicks, fearing for his life if he traveled. Even as Kanter stayed in the US, Turkey put out an Interpol “red notice” for the player — basically an extradition order.

During the NBA playoffs last year, US senators requested the Canadian government grant Kanter safe passage in case the center had to travel with his then-team, the Portland Trail Blazers, to play Toronto in the NBA finals.

That wasn’t an issue — Portland lost in the conference finals. But Kanter is worried again. The Celtics, his current team, have a Christmas game in Toronto against the defending NBA champions, the Raptors. It’s the biggest game of the year, and he’s still not sure if he’ll be able to travel with the team.

And then there are the threats Kanter receives, both online and in person. There was the basketball camp this summer. In Boston, his new hometown, he says he was harassed outside of a mosque by people he believes were Erdoğan supporters. He said that even sometimes when he wants to test out a Turkish restaurant, he’ll send his friends first before he visits himself, just to make sure it’s friendly territory.

Kanter seems to expect it all at this point, and there’s a mix of exasperation and resignation when he talks about it. There are people, he said, who say he should just shut up and play basketball, make his millions. But this is his family, this is his life. This is what he’s chosen, and this is what he’s prepared for, as long as Erdoğan remains in charge.

“People think I don’t like my country,” Kanter said. “People are wrong. I love my country, I love my flag, I love my people. My problem is with the regime in Turkey.”

Kanter goes to Washington, just before Erdogan

In October, Turkey invaded northeastern Syria after US troops withdrew. Syrian Kurdish forces, the US’s key partner in defeating ISIS, held territory near the border with Turkey. Erdoğan saw this as an existential threat, as he ties the Syrian Kurds to a decades-long Kurdish insurgency movement within Turkey.

An incursion into northern Syria may have helped distract from his domestic troubles, including a struggling economy and backlash to the thousands of Syrian refugees within the country.

But it also reminded the world exactly who Erdoğan is: a strongman willing to be reckless to achieve his political ends.

Kanter has said that all along. “What’s happening over there is definitely a tragedy,” he told me in October, saying Turkey’s invasion was putting innocent civilians at risk.

Turkish NBA Player Enes Kanter speaks to reporters about his previous detention at a Romanian airport during a news conference in New York City, on May 22, 2017.
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Turkey occupies an uncomfortable space in US politics right now. It’s a longtime NATO ally that’s slipping into autocracy and moving closer to Russia. The single-minded push into Syria was deeply destabilizing. Which is why President Donald Trump is just about the only person eager to meet with the Turkish president when he comes to the White House on Wednesday.

Ankara’s invasion in Syria sparked bipartisan condemnation on Capitol Hill, both for what it meant to America’s Syrian Kurdish allies, and for Turkey’s aggression. Lawmakers have pushed for sanctions (something Kanter says he supports), and on Monday, a group of House Democratic and Republican lawmakers called on Trump to cancel his scheduled White House meeting with Erdoğan. It was, they wrote, an “inappropriate time.”

The bipartisan pushback has made Kanter’s activism all the more visible — and has brought him to DC.

On Tuesday, Kanter towered over Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) — his current and former representatives — as they introduced new legislation to promote democracy and human rights in Turkey.

Kanter rarely holds back on his Twitter feed, but especially of late, it’s been a mix of retweets of lawmakers and photos of him meeting with representatives and senators, all embracing his cause. He’s also called out US politicians, specifically Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) for voting against the Turkey sanctions bill in Congress this fall. That’s interspersed with his trademark team cheerleading, a reminder that he’s still a basketball player, just trying to do his job.

But Kanter’s presence on Capitol Hill, particularly before Erdogan’s visit, showed that he’s focused and patient and skilled at this activism part, too.

Kanter said he plans to become an American citizen in 2021 when he’s eligible. He said America gave him so much, as his own country Turkey took it away — his reputation, family, his citizenship. Which is why he does what he does, and why Enes Kanter isn’t ever really going to shut up and just play basketball.

“I have a hope. And you have to live with that hope,” Kanter said in September, reflecting on whether he’d go back to Turkey. “And you and you can never lose hope. I know that one day I’m going to be able to go back to my country, see my family again, eat my mom’s food, my favorite.”

“But you cannot lose hope,” he continued. “So all the things I’m trying whatever, I’m trying to talk about all these issues so my country will get better one day.”

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