Kanter uses fame to stand against Erdoğan - NY Times

New York Knicks’ basketball player Enes Kanter will not be there when his team plays in London next week because he fears spies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan might kill him.

“Just because of that one lunatic guy, one maniac or dictator, I can’t even go out there and just do my job,” the 26-year-old Turkish citizen said last week.

The comment marked “a dramatic escalation of his longstanding criticism of Erdoğan and a reflection of the way Kanter has been determined to use his fame as an athlete for political activism he considers crucial and dire,” the New York Times reported on Wednesday.

Kanter’s activism has made him a prominent figure among those protesting an increasingly autocratic government that is also a U.S. ally, according to the Times’ report.  

“The NBA (National Basketball Association) provides a big platform to shed light on the human rights violations in Turkey and gives a voice to the thousands of people persecuted,” Kanter told the Times. “This platform allows me to speak my mind.”

Turkish officials have dismissed his comments as baseless, but Kanter said his fears are real. He said death threats had been “coming a lot more and more every day” since his comments last week. “I was scared. I’m not going to lie,” he said.

In May 2017, Kanter was detained for several hours at an airport in Romania after the Turkish government cancelled his travel documents. He has since been given U.S. documents that enable him to enter the United States and United Kingdom.

His father Mehmet Kanter, a professor, will go on trial in March and could be sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of membership of a terrorist group.

Kanter was at the Pennsylvania home of exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen at the time of the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Ankara blames Gülen and his followers for organising the failed coup, a charge Gülen denies. Kanter has a close relationship with Gülen, according to the Times, and visits the cleric every two weeks when not travelling.

Since the failed coup, Turkey has jailed more than 60,000 people, journalists, academics, political opponents and others who express opposing views or are affiliated with the Gülen movement, said the Times. “To crack down on dissent, Erdoğan has steadily turned Turkey into an authoritarian system through control of the military, the courts, the media and the internet,” the report said.

Kanter has not seen his father, mother and sister, who remain in Turkey, for nearly four years, and no longer communicates with them in an effort to protect them, according to the Times.

His brother Kerem is in Chicago hoping to land a spot in the NBA’s developmental league, while his youngest brother, Ahmet, plays high school basketball in Atlanta.

Kanter said he does not fear an attack in New York, but that London presents more of a threat because of the city’s sizable Turkish community. He does not think his recent comments will further jeopardise his family.

On the contrary, he thinks being outspoken will secure his family’s safety. “If Turkish officials detain his brother at the airport or throw his father in prison, Kanter said, his voice will only grow louder,” wrote the Times. “I will speak to every newspaper and make it one of the biggest stories,” Kanter said.

In contrast to his activism, Kanter is seen as a goofball by his teammates. After a practice just before Christmas, Kanter returned to the court dressed as an elf carrying a red sack full of gag gifts, which he handed out to teammates.

“It’s very tough,” Kanter told the Times. “I can’t show frustration or being sad or mad. I put my game mask on and focus on the game and being as good as I can be. But I receive death threats. It’s sad that I have to balance this.”