Kanter should also be critical of Gülenists’ past

The Turkish government reportedly spent around $30 million on lobbying in the United States under former President Donald Trump. However, Turkey has not been getting much for this money, especially compared to high profile basketball player and Gülenist, Enes Kanter, whose criticism of the Turkish state has been promoted by U.S. politicians from both parties. 

Kanter has been promoted as a ‘human rights activist’ by a lot of Americans, who are aware of the horrific human rights record of the Turkish government, and therefore assume that its critics are all victims deserving of support.

As a basketball star, Kanter has a large platform, which seems to have grown bigger in the past year amid numerous stories documenting his harassment by the Turkish state. 

Constant attacks on Kanter from the Turkish government only serve to endear him to Americans, who find it ridiculous to accuse a basketball player of terrorism.

There’s certainly no doubt that Kanter is a long-time follower of Fethullah Gülen, the exiled Islamic cleric who the Turkish government says organised the failed 2016 coup attempt. He identifies himself as a member of the movement, something other members rarely do. 

Below is a clip of Gülen taking a sip of a cup of tea and then instructing one of his acolytes to give the rest to Kanter. Kanter later accepted the leftover tea from Gülen on social media.

Gülen himself worked as a state-employed imam from 1959 to 1981. In 1971, after the Turkish military memorandum forced the government’s resignation, a military-installed government rolled back some of the liberalisation measures of the 1961 constitution. Islamist groups like Necmettin Erbakan's National Order Party were temporarily shut down. And Gülen was sentenced to three years in jail for starting an organisation aimed at overthrowing the secular state. He served seven months. 

Despite this, Gülen is known for hailing the 1980 military coup, praising and glorifying the armed forces only a month later in the October issue of ‘’Sızıntı’’ magazine. This was widely interpreted as the ‘’hocaefendi’’ approving of the coup, or at least wanting to be in the good graces of the generals.

After 1980, Turkey began to become more interconnected with the global economy thanks to the new prime minister Turgut Özal, and privatisation allowed new businesses to be set up. Gülen founded educational and media organisations, allegedly also becoming friendly with elements of the Turkish security complex, the so-called ‘deep state’. Investigative journalist and politician Ahmet Şık went to prison in 2011 for a book detailing the allegations.

Yet another military intervention in 1997 saw the removal of Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party from power. Still a weak actor, Gülen again sided with the military, calling on Erbakan to resign on national TV. Nevertheless, his followers were still subjected to significant pressure from the authorities. 

In the aftermath, Gülen moved to the United States, and was tried in absentia for comments encouraging supporters to work behind the scenes to take over the state in a leaked recording. Gülen was acquitted in 2008, the same year he received a U.S. Green Card.

Prior to the mid-2000s, Gülen was careful not to become directly involved with any of the main Islamic political parties in Turkey. But, in the early years of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, the Gülenists became a useful tool for then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to use against the traditional secular elites who still dominated the military, public sector and media. Gülen had concentrated on developing a moderately Islamic, but technocratic cadre of followers who could infiltrate the state, and this group would prove to be what Erdoğan needed to replace his opponents with.

Much as Kanter and others affiliated with Gülen may think of themselves as victims of the purge that followed the failed 2016 coup attempt, they belong to a movement with undemocratic origins that intimately embedded itself within various parts of the Turkish state to advance its interests, arguably as “useful idiots”. In doing so, they helped the AKP ruthlessly purge opponents, including journalists like Ahmet Şık. 

The movement's interests are now in presenting itself as a moderate, progressive force being scapegoated by the Turkish state, although it is one of the opposition segments which is a victim of the massive oppression by Erdoğan government. (According to Human Rights Watch, around 34 thousand Gülenists are in jail; large majority of them imprisoned on legally dubious grounds, tortured and kept in solitary confinement.)

The leadership of the Gülen movement, however, were not concerned about the human rights of government opponents - for example, Kurdish Political Movement - when they were part of the structure of the Turkish state.

That’s why it could be seen as misguided for 54 senators from both the Democrat and Republican parties in the United States to sign a letter to President Joe Biden calling on him to pressure the Turkish government to “end their crackdown on dissent both at home and abroad” while referring to Kanter as a “human rights advocate”. 

Kanter was a young man in that period and has nothing to do with those policies of the movement then. However, if he is now a ‘human rights defender’, he should be expected to be critical of the group’s past, rather than whitewashing it.


(The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.)