Enes Kanter is no stranger to fighting for human rights.
On 31 May, the Boston Celtics center attended a Black Lives Matter protest, where he joined demonstrators in protesting the death of George Floyd. Floyd was killed after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly eight minutes until he suffocated.
Kanter, who stands nearly 7ft tall, was seen wearing his No 11 jersey and chanting “I can’t breathe!” – Floyd’s final words – along with the protestors gathered at Boston Common near the Massachusetts State House.
The NBA star later posted a video of his appearance with the caption “Be on the right side of history”, which is also a mantra for how Kanter lives his life: at time at the expense of his his own wellbeing.
Over the past few years, Kanter has used his substantial platform as an international star athlete to condemn Turkey’s pivot towards authoritarianism under president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Kanter has been an outspoken critic against Erdoğan and the deepening human rights crisis taking place under his regime.
“There is no freedom of speech in that country,” Kanter told the Guardian during a phone interview. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Kanter’s interest in political activism began in 2013, the year when Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was hit by a corruption scandal that led to 52 people being detained on charges such as fraud, bribery, money laundering, corruption, and gold smuggling. Erdoğan, then prime minister, blamed the scandal on an international conspiracy fronted by the Islamic community and Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gülen.
“Until I was 20 years old, my whole life was about basketball,” Kanter said. “But [after the corruption scandal], while my teammates were going to hang out, eat, go to the club, I was going home to study, to learn about foreign relations, Turkish politics, American politics, and what’s going on between America and Turkey.”
The 28-year-old NBA star remained vocal in his criticisms against Erdoğan, especially following the failed 2016 coup d’état in Turkey. More than 300 people were killed in the struggle, which was followed by mass arrests with at least 40,000 people being detained, including soldiers, judges, teachers, and government workers. The extensive purge of Turkish civil service was viewed as an attempt to suppress dissent and consolidate Erdoğan’s power.
As one of Erdoğan’s most vocal critics, Kanter has had to endure the wrath of the Turkish government. Authorities have targeted his entire family, raiding the family home in 2016 and shunning them from participating in civil society, all in an attempt to silence the basketball player.
“The last time I saw my family was back in 2015,” Kanter said. “My dad was a genetics professor and he got fired from his job. My sister went to medical school for six years and she cannot find a job right now because of her last name. One of the saddest things is that my little brother’s dream was to be an NBA player but he literally got kicked out of every team in Turkey.”
Kanter also revealed that his family was pressured to publicly disown him, and they eventually asked him to change his family name, which he refused to do. He has not spoken to his parents or siblings in years. “I can’t even remember the last time I spoke to my family,” he added.
Despite the intense pressure on himself and his family, Kanter refused to be silent. The Turkish government revoked his passport in 2017, rendering him stateless, while prosecutors sought an international arrest warrant from Interpol after accusing him of being a member in a terror organization. The prosecutors cited Kanter’s ties to Gülen, whom the Turkish government blamed for the failed coup in 2016. Gülen has denied any involvement in the coup attempt.
“In 2017, the Turkish government revoked my passport. It is tough, actually, because when people ask me where I am from, I have no idea what to tell them anymore. So I applied for a green card and got it. I’m actually less than a year away from becoming an American citizen.”
Kanter learned about his invalidated passport after being detained at a Romanian airport on his 25th birthday. He used his social media presence to post videos calling Erdoğan a dictator and the “Hitler of our century,” which resulted in the trending hashtag #FreeEnes.
When Kanter returned to the United States, he remained steadfast in his criticisms of Erdoğan, citing countless atrocities taking place in his homeland. He admitted to the Guardian that over the years, many of his teammates have questioned his decision to embrace his role as a high-profile political activist, even going so far as to tell him to “keep your mouth shut and make your millions”.
“They don’t understand that my family is just one of many that this is happening to [in Turkey]. Because of the coronavirus, the Turkish government decided to release all the child rapists, murderers, smugglers, and thieves go but kept all the political prisoners and journalists in jail. And if coronavirus spreads in jail, it is going to be deadly for the people in there. … There are so many political prisoners and journalists [in prison]. There are 17,000 women in jail right now and over 800 babies growing up in prison. These women are being raped and tortured every day.
“All I am trying to do is help the people who are suffering in Turkey.”
Despite the worsening political situation in Turkey, Kanter is emboldened by the support he has received from world leaders, politicians and NBA fans around the world. Kanter even cited the public pressure and attention as part of the reason why his father, Dr Mehmet Kanter, was acquitted on terrorism charges by a Turkish court last week. “Wow! I could cry … Today I found out that 7 years after arresting my dad, taking him through a Kangaroo court and accusing him of being a criminal just because he is my dad, my dad has been released,” Enes tweeted last Thursday.
Much like former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was the first player to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality in 2016, Kanter believes that athletes should use their platform for good and to inspire the next generation of youth who look up to them.
“Our future is in our hands,” Kanter said. “Those young kids right now watching us, they’re going to be our future. If you going to talk about things that matter like democracy, freedom of speech or religion, when they grow up, they will be the same.”
Kanter’s activism is not limited to Turkish politics. He sees similarities between the ongoing unrest in the United States and the human rights situation in Turkey – “Everyone is living in fear” – while his presence at the Black Lives Matter protest in Boston last month highlighted his views on global oppression beyond borders. As he told the Guardian, “I know what it is like to fight against injustice. This is not black against white. This is everybody against racism. We need to use our platforms to spread good, and to spread the truth.”
Though less than a year away from becoming a US citizen, Kanter has no intention of abandoning Turkey. Instead, he plans to continue to fight to ensure that democracy is achieved in both his native land and his chosen home.
“Turkey could have been the bridge between Islam and the West but because of all the stuff happening now, that is almost impossible. I love my country and I love my people. That’s why I want things to change. And just because I talk about democracy, human rights and freedom, the Turkish government calls me a terrorist. It is the craziest thing.
“The only thing I terrorize is the basketball ring.”