As Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan takes extraordinary steps to consolidate power and to crush dissent within his country. Here in the United States, Oklahoma City Thunder star and Turkish native Enes Kanter has been unafraid to speak out against the undermining of democratic institutions within his home country. His basketball stardom has afforded Kanter a platform most Turks don’t have, giving his criticism of the Turkish government more weight. That’s too much for a strongman like Erdogan to take. So the Turkish government tried to silence Kanter just this past weekend once and for all, and now the basketball star is opening up about the oppression he and other Turks face with Erdogan in power.
The harassment of Kanter came to a head on his latest trip abroad. With his NBA season over, Kanter has been traveling around the world, hosting basketball camps with his foundation. When he was in Indonesia, Kanter’s manager knocked on his hotel room door in the middle of the night and said they needed to talk. “He told me ‘the Turkish government has called Indonesia and told them Enes Kanter is a dangerous man,’” Kanter says. The army and secret service were going to shut down his camp, and they needed to get out of the country.
They fled to Romania, the site of his next scheduled event, on the earliest flight they could board. But as he tried to enter Romania, he found the Turkish government had revoked his passport. He worried that he would deported back to Turkey and jailed by Erdogan. While Romanian police detained him, he filmed a video for Twitter to let the world know what was happening.
To understand Kanter’s objections to Erdogan, it helps to have a little background. Erdogan efforts to change Turkey from a parliamentary democracy into to a country with a strong executive have been successful. It has been part of a decades-long quest for power. In 1994, when he was elected mayor of Istanbul, he started banning alcohol sales in cafés as part of his effort to turn secular Turkey into an Islamic-dominant country. In the 2000s he founded a party that would eventually win a majority of seats in Parliament and make him prime minister. He rose to president and just as corruption investigations seemed poised to bring him down; he was able to deflect blame and quash the inquest. Since then he has been cracking down on dissent. And with his country in turmoil, last year a failed military coup gave him the political capital to seize more power. He had people fired from their jobs, jailed people deemed as coup sympathizers, and became the world’s leader of jailing journalists.
The frightening reach of Erdogan’s autocratic ways were felt in America last week. He came to the States to be welcomed by friend of dictators, President Donald Trump. While he was in Washington, D.C., Kurdish immigrants protested the Turkish embassy. What happened next was truly disturbing.
The bodyguards who beat the protestors in full view of Erdogan left the country without consequence. In fact, when they returned, the Turkish government demanded an apology from the United States for interfering with Erdogan’s security detail.
It’s behavior like this from Erdogan and his lackeys that has Kanter speaking out that nearly cost him his freedom this weekend, but this wasn’t the beginning of the harassment. It started with him being left off the Turkish national team, despite being their best player, and has evolved into his inability to visit Turkey for fear of being arrested or killed. And to protect family and friends back home and in order to keep Erdogan from jailing them, he’s had to cut off all communications. Those family members still face harassment in Turkey. (His dad has been spit on at the supermarket for having a son who questions Erdogan.)
With some help from the United States, Kanter was able to leave Romania for London and then return to New York to avoid detention by Turkish authorities. Yet, it will be a while before life will be back to normal for him or his country.