Four years after the failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, NBA superstar Enes Kanter speaks to Kathimerini about how he experienced that momentous night on July 15, 2016 in the United States alongside a shocked Fethullah Gulen, the exiled Turkish cleric.
He also talks about his own forced exile and his family’s persecution by the regime in Ankara, relations between Greece and Turkey, and his view on the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
Kanter, who plies his trade at the Boston Celtics and has his own charity foundation, says he and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek Milwaukee Bucks sensation, could send a strong message of peace.
The 28-year-old Swiss-born Turkish center has had his passport revoked by the Turkish authorities and is unable to contact his family back home, for fear of their further persecution by the Erdogan regime, of which he is a staunch critic.
Last year, Kanter refused to follow his team to an exhibition game in London, saying that he was afraid of being abducted by agents of the Turkish government. He says he feels safe enough living in the United States, but has had a panic button installed in his bedroom by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
His family back home in Turkey, though, is a constant source of worry even though there is some relief in the fact that after years in jail and in courts his father, an academic, has been released and cleared of all the charges.
Kanter also expresses his gratitude through Kathimerini to the Greek government and the Greek people for welcoming Turkish refugees fleeing the Erdogan regime, saying this will be remembered for many years to come.
For years you and your family have experienced the hard side of the Erdogan regime. When did it all start and what prompted it?
For the last seven years, I have devoted much of my life to the fight for human rights in my homeland. I started to speak out in 2013 after the infamous corruption scandal involving key members of the Turkish government, including then-prime minister and now President Erdogan, and members of his family. The 2016 coup attempt would follow. Many believe Erdogan staged it to grab power and introduce a dictatorship. Then would come a series of purges that have led to more than 160,000 judges, teachers, police, civil servants, journalists and others arrested, detained and/or dismissed simply because they were critical of the government. My own family were targeted in these purges.
My father, a genetics professor, was fired from his job and thrown in jail. My sister, who is fully qualified to practice medicine after six years in medical school, still cannot find a job years later. My little brother was kicked out of every basketball team he was in. My mother, father, sister and other family members can’t go outside freely without fear of harassment. Why? Because I, their son and brother, am an outspoken critic of the government’s human rights abuses, and they are guilty of loving me.
The Turkish government revoked my passport, put out an international arrest warrant for me, calling me a terrorist, and had my name put on a red notice with Interpol. As a result, I cannot see or contact my family or else I put them at risk with the Erdogan regime.
After so many years of suffering, we are celebrating one victory. Finally, after seven years in and out of Turkish courts and jails my father, Dr Mehmet Kanter, has been cleared and is free. But the fight is far from over.
I just want to add that the night of the coup attempt I was with [Imam Fethullah] Gulen in the same room. I remember one of his students brought him the news of the coup attempt. He was very shocked and saddened. He told all his followers and students to pray for Turkey. After the coup attempt, President Erdogan came out and blamed the Gulen movement for it. I was so shocked that Erdogan was scapegoating Gulen, his movement and his followers.
The night of the coup, I saw what Gulen did with my own eyes. He had no part in it; he was sitting in his chair and praying for his country. He actually cried because over 250 innocent people died that night.
You have been kept away from your family, your friends from childhood, etc. Yet you do not give up. What gives you the strength to carry on despite the threats you have received?
This fight has taken a tremendous toll on me and has been very difficult. But there are thousands of families whose situations are way worse than my family’s. I think of the thousands of innocent men, women and children sitting in Turkish jails simply for trying to exercise free speech, free religion or free thought. Because of coronavirus the Turkish government set free child rapists, murderers, mafia leaders, human traffickers and thieves, yet keeps journalists, human rights activists, political dissidents – including babies, women, elderly and sick innocents – in jail. It is a human rights crisis and I feel I must continue fighting. I am and I must be the voice of innocents.
Have you ever been afraid for your life or for that of a family member? Do you feel safe in the United States?
I worry about my family all the time. In 2015 the Turkish government went to my family’s home, searched their electronics, phones, laptops and other private property, looking for any communications with me. Had the government found those communications, my family would surely be in jail today. That’s why as heartbreaking as it is, I still cannot contact them.
I personally receive death threats every day. Yet, in the United States I feel safe because the government honors and recognizes freedom and rule of law. I am in touch with the FBI and the police regularly, and actually had a panic button put in my room which FBI set up for me to push if anything happens so they can come immediately. I’m so grateful to the people and government of the United States for the freedoms I have today.
How did the Enes Kanter Foundation come about and what are its objectives?
The Enes Kanter Foundation focuses on three things: education, poverty alleviation and social harmony around the globe. We support numerous charitable initiatives. We opened a school in Africa and plan to open another in Oklahoma because I believe the best investment for our future comes with education. Whoever opens a school door closes a prison.
My foundation also holds the record for the most free basketball camps provided in a single summer. During our basketball camps, I personally mentor and coach underprivileged children.
What is Turkey missing today? Do you think it ought to come closer to Europe?
There is no doubt that Turkey is heavily linked to Europe through trade and security. The Cold War prevented Turkey from becoming a full democracy because the military was too powerful and NATO tolerated the military’s role in politics because it was a bulwark against the Soviet threat. But now that the Cold War is over, becoming a member of the European Union looked like the only way to become a full democracy. Unfortunately, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan abused EU membership talks in the 2000s and used it to get rid of the military and hostile judiciary, and laid the groundwork of his unlimited and unchecked power.
The time is different today. The EU 20 years ago had some leverage over Turkey and its members. Not anymore. Hungary and Poland are prime examples of how countries may start burying freedoms while being a member of the EU.
Do you believe Erdogan is the real obstacle to a democratic Turkey or is he just the tip of the iceberg that has for decades refused to melt? What lies behind every strong political personality that for years will not allow Turkey to approach the West?
Erdogan manipulates the state-controlled media to make him the popular autocrat he is today. Like every autocrat, he enjoys significant domestic sympathy. That’s because he oversees almost entire TV networks, print news media and radio channels, parroting his propaganda 24/7. In addition, he censors any truths that may threaten his power... even locking journalists in jail.
Conditions that helped Erdogan emerge (including the anti-democracy military establishment) and Erdogan’s skillful exploitation of the Turkish political system gave rise to such an autocrat. It is not like Turkey had a great political system and fully democratic government before Erdogan. It was engulfed in political turbulence and economic turmoil. But at least the power wasn’t consolidated in one hand like it is today. Yes, Erdogan is a problem. So is the system that left him unchecked.
Erdogan is trying to juggle many open fronts: In the Aegean, in Libya, in the Middle East and now with Hagia Sophia. What do you think he’s trying to achieve?
Erdogan is using Turkey’s strategic location to try to grab power for himself. Turkey is too important a country for any major powers to lose, and Erdogan is skillfully playing into this. He is becoming a friend with the US one day and then embracing [Russian President] Vladimir Putin. He then becomes a good ally with Saudi Arabia and then gets closer to Iran and Qatar.
Turkey’s ventures in Syria, Iraq and Aegean are recurring reflexes, prompted by threat perceptions from its neighbors, including the Kurds. Its increasingly troublesome involvement in Libya is related to its power struggle with regional powers like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
Erdogan is clearly playing politics and playing countries’ interests against one another in order to consolidate power for himself. For Erdogan, it’s all about control and power.
You recently stated that Hagia Sophia is a symbol “representing all of us.” What is your view of its conversion? Why did Erdogan do it?
We must respect all cultures and religions. Hagia Sophia is a UN World Heritage site, so must be preserved. It celebrates religious harmony and is inclusive of Christians, as our society should be. When it was originally built in the 6th century, it served as the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church and this precious history must not be forgotten. There are so many mosques around that area that are not even half full, yet Erdogan insists on converting it into another mosque. Even Pope Francis says he is deeply pained by this decision, as am I. This is one of Erdogan’s games and is politically motivated. It means Turkey is moving away from its modern secular roots.
Turkey has recently shown a particularly undemocratic face. In recent years many Turks have come over to settle in Greece, putting their children in Greek schools, with some saying they can no longer tolerate life in Turkey. These are family men and women who speak of Greece in the kindest way and believe that peaceful coexistence between the two peoples is the only way forward for the two countries. They add that the vast majority of Turkish people want peace and friendship, not this permanent tension. Do you think that the aggressive policies emanating from Ankara are ruining your country’s reputation?
Who would have thought that thousands of Turkish citizens, including children, would use dinghy boats to flee their country because staying would mean certain arrest and torture in Turkish prisons?
In the past four years, Greece has been very gracious in opening up its borders and letting dissident Turks use Greece as a refuge and a transit country as they resettle elsewhere. The situation would be completely different for those innocent refugees if Greece enforced stricter migration policies. It is an act of generosity that we won’t forget for many years to come.
Both Greece and Turkey are NATO members and there is absolutely no reason why the two countries should be locked in this century-old animosity over some tiny islands. Greece is a window to Europe for Turkey, and Turkey is a gateway to the Middle East and Asia for Greece. There are so many opportunities that could benefit both if they abandon disputes over petty issues.
Are your efforts well received in the US and in the National Basketball Association? Do you have support?
Yes, I have received so much support for my human rights fight. I would like to thank my teammates, coaches, fans, NBA family, journalists, senators, congresspeople, the White House, the FBI and the State Department for believing in me and giving me the strength and hope to fight against dictatorship in Turkey. We are garnering tremendous support for this fight with my You Are My Hope campaign on Change.org. I encourage everyone to sign.
In 2018 you had an unfortunate moment with Giannis Antetokounmpo, probably due to momentary tension. Are you in any contact with him? Do you believe the two of you could send a strong message of peace?
To me, Giannis Antetokounmpo is this year’s MVP. What makes him so special is he makes himself better and also he makes everyone better around him. He’s also one of the most down-to-earth players in the league. The momentary tension that happened between us was just the heat of competition. As sportsmen, we understand that is just about a desire to win. In reality I have a great respect for him. He was one of the reasons I funded wildfire relief in Greece. I feel that together we can send a strong message of peace.
Boston Celtics, NBA, coronavirus... What are your plans for your basketball future? What is the NBA’s plan for the game’s future in the Covid-19 context?
Right now we’re all in an NBA bubble in Disney World Orlando. The NBA, our teams, coaches and staff are doing everything they can to keep everyone safe. I believe the Boston Celtics can beat every team on every floor, and we have a really good chance to win a championship. It will be a fun matchup for us Boston Celtics against Milwaukee. There is still a lot of uncertainty about the future not just for the NBA but for the world given coronavirus. But basketball is an escape and a positive thing we can all look forward to.
Is there any message you would like to send to the Greek people through Kathimerini?
I have so much appreciation for the people and government of Greece, especially for assisting refugees and migrants from Turkey who are forced to flee Erdogan’s oppression and harassment. I am very grateful to our Greek neighbors for their efforts in supporting human rights.
From the bottom of my heart: Thank you Greece! Thank you, thank you, thank you!