Portland Trail Blazer and Erdogan critic Enes Kanter talks about his fight against dictatorship. In an interview with Ksenija Pavlovic Mcateer, he opens up about his relationship with the leader of the Hizmet movement, Fethullah Gülen, and explains why he is calling on President Biden to save Turkey from the odious brutality of Erdogan’s regime.
Portland Trail Blazer Enes Kanter spent much of his youth in his beloved Turkey. Growing up, he wanted to become a soccer player, but life had other plans: to skyrocket him to the National Basketball Association's heights. His father was initially not thrilled with the idea of his son playing basketball: he wanted young Enes to focus on his education. After a long conversation and a lot of convincing, Enes was permitted to embark on his sports career. While still a young boy, Kanter moved to Ankara and then Istanbul chasing his basketball dream. "My life was always on the road," he said of these early transient years in Turkey.
In second grade, Kanter's parents enrolled him in Gülen's schools, a decision that would set him on a unique path in life and eventually propel him to become the most visible spokesperson for the Hizmet movement, one of the biggest Muslim networks in the world and critic of Erdogan's regime.
“My parents wanted me to go to Fethullah Gülen’s schools because they were the best quality schools in Turkey. Gülen’s schools taught me not only about math and science but also how to be a good student and a good person. They taught me a lot about how to be brave and how to always stand up for others, for the voices of innocent people,” Enes said fondly.
“Obviously, when I was a kid, I didn't know that this would become my path in life. I did not know I was going to become this person who always talks about what's important, about human rights and democracy, because, you know, I was too young then. But in retrospect, maybe if I didn't go to those schools, I wouldn’t have become this, you know? I'm really thankful and blessed to have been a member of the Fethullah Gülen’s schools, for sure.”
American freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment have inspired many truth-tellers around the world to seek the light of democracy in dark corners of the world. The Founding Fathers' ideas were ready-made for universal consumptions.
“Until 2015, I was able to go back and forth to Turkey, and whenever I came back to America, I could immediately tell the difference in freedom of speech,” Enes said. “I remember asking my American friends back then ‘Okay, so if you say something critical about the government here, you won't go to jail?’ ‘Why would you go to jail?’ they asked. ‘Just because you criticize the government or you're criticizing someone from the government?’ And I said, ‘that's what happens in Turkey.’ ‘No, that's not what happens, here, in America,’ they told me. I said, ‘Okay, this is a whole different world to me, I gotta get used to this.’”
Kanter revealed that free speech in America felt amazing because “here, you're not scared to talk about what's important; you are not afraid to speak your mind.” In Turkey, Kanter said, “You are always under pressure. If I say something, the next day the police are gonna show up at my house and they're gonna take me away. Or if you criticize the government, they can retaliate at your parents. Or if you say something against the government, they will make it look like you're against your country.”
Seeing how freely American people talk about politics, Enes started watching CNN, FOX, and CNBC, where journalists and pundits often had critical views of the government.
“There's freedom of speech in America and there's freedom of the press,” Kanter said. “If you do that in Turkey, the government will come down and take down the whole media outlet, take down the whole TV station. So, for the first couple of months, I was definitely having a very hard time adjusting. It was very different and interesting for me. I was telling my teammates, ‘You guys are so lucky and blessed. You guys have no idea how grateful guys you should be.’”
Observing American public discourse, Enes Kanter decided that he needed to start paying attention to what was going on in Turkey. But when he started to speak up about the 2013 corruption scandal that reached the inner circle of then, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan little did Enes Kanter know that it would trigger a strong reaction from Erdogan.
“The first time I heard about the corruption scandal in 2013, I felt I needed to go out there and say something about it. I felt like people were scared to say something,” Enes noted. “Because of the things I learned in America, I needed to talk about what's important to my country: I needed to talk about democracy, freedom, and human rights,” he explained. “ I'm not a politician, I'm not a journalist but I still can talk about that stuff. I felt I had to. So that was the first time I went out there and said something. The Turkish Government hated it: they obviously did not like that,” he added.
By that time, Fethullah Gülen was already in exile in America. The leader of the Hizmet movement, who many Western leaders see as the modern face of Islam, has lived on a compound in Pennsylvania since 1999.
“The first time I met Gülen was back in 2013, but he never said, ‘do this, do that.’ He never said, ‘tweet this tweet, or talk to this media outlet.’ Gülen would always say: 'This is your life, your decisions, you can do whatever you want.' And I told him, ‘I want to help release innocent people over there [in Turkey].’ And he gave me the one piece of advice I still remember. ‘The most important thing in life is 'leave your differences on a table and try to find what we have in common'. It doesn't matter what your background is, your skin color, your religion or your culture, just leave any difference on the table.’ Because he was telling me: we only have one world to live in. So we need to make this world better together. For me, every morning, I wake up, I ask what can I do to make this world better? Not just in Turkey but all over the world.”
Kanter made use of his platform as an NBA player to speak out for human rights and freedom of expression. Activism by sports players has been common since the death of George Floyd, but Kanter was a pioneer, showing other basketball players they could use their power to call attention to issues they care about. He’s a trailblazer in more than one sense. NBA fans and teammates have a sympathetic view of Enes’ activism.
“My fans, my teammates, and the coach, they give me their support and that gives me so much hope and motivation to fight for what's right. It is so important to have this support,” he pointed out.
“My team, my teammates are like my brothers, like my family to me”, Enes said. He admits that at first, it was strange for them to hear that he, Enes, was on the Interpol list, had a warrant out for his arrest, and received regular death threats. “Obviously, no one asked questions, but once I got close to them, they started asking questions, and I wanted to explain to them, and they said,'’ What can we do for you?’”
Though his activism shifted the conversation he has with his teammates and followers, those relationships have only become deeper.“Before all this happened, they were coming up to me to say ‘good game last night’ but now they're coming up to me and saying ‘good OpEd,’ ‘good interview,’ ‘keep doing what you're doing.’ Encouragement for their teammate or their sports hero follows Kanter on and off the court.
On the night of July 15, 2016, an attempted coup d’etat took place in Turkey. Soldiers and tanks emerged on the streets. Explosions rocked Ankara and Istanbul. Turkish fighter jets dropped bombs on the parliament.
“I remember that day,” Enes began. “I was with Mr.Gülen, not many people know that but I was with Mr. Gülen in the same room,” he revealed. “When the coup was happening, one of the followers walked in and brought Mr. Gülen the news, on an iPad. She said, ‘There's a coup happening in Turkey,’ and Gülen was shocked. He looked at the news on the iPad. And she [the follower] was just very shocked. Gülen immediately brought all his friends together to pray for the country, because over 250 people died. Actually, Mr. Gülen cried that night because of all the people,” Enes revealed.
“After the coup, President Erdogan came out and blamed the Gülen movement and Mr.Gülen for it. And I was like, I was there when it was happening with Gülen, in the same room, you know, and this is crazy. He did not—or any of his followers are affiliated with this movement—get involved in a coup d'etat. So, I gotta do everything I can to just go everywhere and tell about this story because everyone is blind.”
‘What's Erdogan’s motivation to blame the coup on Gülen?’ I put the question in front of him.
“Gülen's movement is the strongest movement in Turkey. Erdogan was able to control every other movement, every other station, every other media outlet, everything but the Gülen movement. The Gülen movement has schools, dormitories, universities, and media outlets. Number-one-selling newspapers. Whenever Erdogan did something wrong, it was all over the news. This movement was not scared to talk about what Erdogan was doing wrong, you know, so that's why Erdogan was very scared.”
The nearest that Enes Kanter came to an imminent threat to his safety was in 2017 when two people showed up unannounced at the basketball camp in Indonesia.
“What the Turkish government does is work with these kinds of countries, like Indonesia, Malaysia, Albania, Kenya to kidnap people and send them back to Turkey. There, they become political prisoners. They tried to do the same thing to me when I was in Indonesia, but we got a lot of people who heard the news early so we had to literally escape that country at 3 a.m. in the morning,” Enes recalled.
Kanter escaped the country, making it safely to Singapore. He then went to Romania. The moment he landed, his passport was turned down at customs. This meant that even though he had entered legally, he was no longer permitted to remain in Romania and could be deported. “I’m not an American citizen yet,” he reminded me. “If there’s a chance that I could get deported back to Turkey, it will be very, very ugly.”
Kanter had only hours to get out of the country before authorities would have sent him to Turkey into Erdogan’s hands. “We talked to US senators, NBA teammates,” he said, “and everyone said ‘you guys have to leave as soon as possible because there is a chance that you guys can be deported back to Turkey.’” Eventually, he was able to board a flight to London. Once they arrived, the flight was boarded by two airport policemen. “I am probably going back to Turkey,” Kanter remembers thinking. The police walked right through the aisle and took someone else from the seat right behind him. “I think it was like a terrorist or something.”
It didn’t lead to Enes’ deportation, but the delays from the police search meant the connecting flight Kanter had booked to New York had already left. He had missed it. “A lady gave me a voucher and said, ‘you guys can go to the hotel and come back the next day, get on the plane.’ But we couldn't tell her we are basically international criminals, because I did not have a passport, that there are countries out there trying to catch me so they can deport me back to Turkey.”
That night, Enes and his traveling companions decided that their safest bet was to stay at the airport and sleep there.
“The next day, at the gate there was one guy waiting, a very serious guy with a jacket and glasses. He asked for my green card. I gave him it. He took some notes, called some people, and said ‘Okay, go ahead'. Later on, Enes learned that this man was from Homeland Security. “We called so many people, politicians, people from the NBA,” Enes recounted.“This was way bigger than what we could have handled.”
‘What went through your mind in those moments?’ I wanted to know.
“It shows how scared they are.” Enes paused for a moment. “It shows you how much they want to take me down. I was like: wow. So, what I'm doing is working; so, I said, ‘just keep going.’ That never put me in any bad mood or made me sad or upset. I was like, ‘You know what? What I'm doing is working. I'm literally going against all dictatorships, and they try to do everything they can to just stop me and silence me.’ It actually just fired me up even more,” he said.
Enes recalled this time in his life when he had been all by himself, with no family member to call. “Obviously, it was tough,” Enes revealed. “It was tough, but I was like ‘You know what? I'm doing this for innocent people.’ So, I believe that God will protect me,” he added. At the same time, Enes began to have many conversations with the FBI, a part of his life that he took as a new normal. “This is part of the fight against a dictatorship, threats are going to happen,” he said calmly.
Erdogan persistently demanded the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gülen. In November 2016, Michael Flynn, at the time Trump’s National Security Advisor wrote an OpEd for the Hill. “The primary bone of contention between the U.S. and Turkey,” Flynn wrote at the time, “is Fethullah Gülen, a shady Islamic mullah residing in Pennsylvania whom former President Clinton once called his ‘friend’ in a well-circulated video.”
Flynn took the view that “Gülen portrays himself as a moderate, but he is, in fact, a radical Islamist.” Advocating for Turkey, Flynn stated that “From Turkey’s point of view, Washington is harboring Turkey’s Osama bin Laden.”
On March 8, 2017, four months after the OpEd was published in The Hill, the news broke that Flynn had registered himself with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for $530,000 of lobbying work he undertook before Election Day 2016, work which may have aided the Turkish government. In the filings, Flynn disclosed that he had received payments from Inovo BV, a Dutch company owned by a Turkish businessman with ties to Erdogan. It also turned out that Inovo reviewed the draft of the OpEd before Flynn submitted it to The Hill. Neither General Flynn nor his representatives disclosed this information when his OpEd in The Hill was submitted.
Flash forward to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, where it was revealed that Flynn "impeded the ability of the public to learn about the Republic of Turkey's efforts to influence public opinion about the failed coup, including its efforts to effectuate the removal of a person legally residing in the United States."
The alleged plot to remove Fethullah Gulen was first revealed in March 2017 by former CIA director James Woolsey.
“It's ridiculous that the National Security Adviser Flynn gets money from the Turkish Government to kidnap. I don't know what to say, it's the wildest thing I've ever heard,” Enes said. “There are laws and rules in America. Mr. Gulen doesn’t even have a parking ticket in the US, so why would he get deported back to Turkey? When I was in DC actually, last year, I was having a conversation with the Chief of Staffs and some senators. They asked me, ‘Do you know that Erdogan asked Trump for your and Mr. Gulen's extradition back to Turkey?’ And I asked, ‘Why?’ All Gulen cares about is education, poverty alleviation, and social harmony around the globe. His movement has schools and dormitories and dialogue centers in over 170 countries around the world. He always talks about universal peace, and how important education is. Why would he get deported? And me? All I do is play basketball and talk about human rights so I'm not scared at all. You know, that just shows how ridiculous the Turkish government is.”
On May 16, 2017, the security detail of President Erdogan started beating protesters in front of the Turkish ambassador's residence in Washington DC. One may pause to notice that shoving and kicking the protesters, happened on US soil. “How did it feel to witness that? Was there a sense of: if Erdogan can do this to random civilians on US soil, what can he do to me, who he wants to reach so badly?’”, I asked Enes.
“That's what I'm trying to tell people. Look what the security guards did to innocent people for the whole world to see, in the capital of America. Think about what Erdogan is doing behind the curtains in his country, to innocent people in jail who are against him.”
Regarding his personal safety, Enes says he feels safe in America. “I've been in contact with the FBI and many other people in security and stuff. You know, there was a point that the death threats were so much the FBI had to come to my hotel room and set up this thing called a panic button. They said, ‘whenever we feel uncomfortable, push it. We'll be there in two, three minutes.’ So, wherever I go, I always let someone know, or I go with the security and stuff. But other than that, you know, I know that the government protects me because I am doing this for innocent people.”
On February 9, 2021, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) sent a letter to Biden, signed by 50 other senators asking him to press the Turkish government to improve its human rights record. In the letter, senators state that they are concerned with “an increasingly authoritarian crackdown on dissent both domestically and abroad.” The bipartisan letter cited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for marginalizing domestic opposition, silencing or coopting critical media outlets, purging independent judges, and replacing them with party loyalists, and jailing scores of journalists.
“When you know that the world leaders, ambassadors, US Senators and Congressmen, the President, have your back, that gives you so much motivation,” Enes emphasized. “One thing I always talk to them about is: ‘Listen, Erdogan is a dictator, the whole world knows it now. You cannot use a soft tone. We have to start taking some actions because this guy is a threat to the whole of Europe.’ Turkey is a NATO ally, but acting like that, they're not, and they are becoming more friends with Russia than America,” he noted.
“Before America put sanctions on Turkey, I had a conversation with Mike Pompeo, and he was telling me about that, you know, Turkey is going out of their mind and, and all that stuff and then a couple of days later they put sanctions on Turkey,” Enes revealed.
“I think it has to be America, Canada, and Europe coming together and starting to take action with Erdogan because he's not going to understand the soft talk. ‘Let's make a deal. let's do this let's do that.’ No, he doesn't care,” Enes declared. “Because of Erdogan's hate speeches, there are so many of the younger generations in Turkey who have grown up anti-Western and anti-semitic. So, that's why I feel like the world needs to start doing something about it and take some actions.”
Enes told me that he has been already talking to people in the Biden administration, and the new president’s staff have assured him he is on the right path and extended their support. He’s hopeful that with the new administration, actions will at last start to be taken against Erdogan.
“They are telling me the same thing, ‘you are right, what you're doing is right just keep doing what you're doing. And I think with the Biden administration I feel like they are gonna start taking some actions,” he said.
Enes’ message to Biden is simple. “I love my country. The reason I'm doing all this is because I love my country. Turkey could have been a bridge between Islam and the West, but just because of this stuff happening right now, it's impossible. Turkey is in NATO but does not act like NATO’s ally. They are using it to put people on red notices of Interpol. There are so many political prisoners in Turkey. My country is the number one country in the world that puts most journalists in jail, and there are so many human rights violations, and there are so many undemocratic moves happening in Turkey. Mr. President, save Turkey. Save my country.”
Enes Kanter’s activism has raised the painful question of consequences on his family. “People were getting affected so much—my family actually was getting affected so much—because my dad was a professor and he got fired. My sister went to medical school for six years, and she still cannot find a job,” he revealed.
Enes told me that his brother, Karem Kanter, also a basketball player “got kicked out of every game.” His family had to put a statement to disavow Enes. “When they put the statement out, the Turkish government didn't believe what they said. The police came to my house in Turkey. They rigged the whole house and took every electronic device away because they wanted to see if I am still in contact with my family.”
Enes is still incapable of seeing his family. His brother Karem who’s now playing basketball in Greece, Enes told me, is taking care of them.
“My family, they are hostages. They took their passports away, and they're not letting them leave the country,” he said. “I obviously want to see my family. I miss my family,” he stated immediately adding that people know his story because he plays in the NBA but “there are so many families and so many stories out where the situation is way worse than mine. I have to stand up for those families and those people too”.
In the end, Enes is hopeful that he’s ”going to reunite with my family and to be able to see my mom and dad again.”
Stateless, but with a heart full of hope, Kanter will in June of this year become an American citizen. “After I become a citizen, I'm going to be like, ‘Man, I finally have a country’.”
Is the political office in the future for Kanter one day? Perhaps. Until then, Kanter is going to continue to speak against the imprisonment of journalists and for all Turkish people who are forced to live in exile. In the footsteps of W.H. Auden’s poem, September 1, 1939, All I have is a voice, Enes Kanter knows that the lights on democracy must never go out.
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
And what dictators do...
SIGNUP here to get Good Morning DC, our daily brief delivered straight to your inbox.
Send tips to Good Morning DC at email@example.com
Sign up for The Pavlovic Today Newsletter featuring news, scoops, exclusive interviews and expert analysis