Enes Kanter's Impossible Situation: 'I Have No Choice but to Stand Up'

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistJune 1, 2017

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 22:  Turkish NBA Player Enes Kanter speaks to the media during a news conference about his detention at a Romanian airport on May 22, 2017 in New York City. Kanter returned to the U.S. after being detained for several hours at a Romanian airport following statements he made criticizing Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

It was 2:30 on a Saturday morning when Enes Kanter was awoken by a knock on his hotel room door. Groggy, and just 150 minutes removed from his 25th birthday, he stumbled out of bed to find his manager, Mevlut "Hilmi" Cinar, panicked, waiting for him in the hall.

"Can you come to my room?" Cinar asked.        

There, Kanter told USA Today's Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt, he saw a laptop open on an internet page listing flights out of the country. He asked what was going on. A contact, Cinar told him, had passed on word that Indonesia's secret service and army were looking for Kanter. They wanted to talk to him. Turkey, Kanter's native country, had told Indonesian officials that the NBA veteran, who was in Indonesia running basketball clinics for local kids on behalf of his foundation, was a dangerous man.

Kanter thought about friends who had been kidnapped in other countries and sent back to Turkey. He knew he had to get out. It didn't matter to where.

By 3:30 a.m., he and his group had tossed all their belongings into bags and grabbed a cab to the airport. They had purchased tickets for a 5:30 a.m. flight.

They touched down in Singapore just under two hours later, then caught another flight to Frankfurt, Germany, and another one to Bucharest, where they landed around 1 p.m. on Saturday, Romanian time, according to the New York TimesBenjamin Hoffman. The plan was to head back to the United States.

The 6'11" Kanter, who is seen in video he posted to Twitter at the time wearing black sweatpants and a black hooded sweatshirt with the words "This IS WHY WE PLAY" stitched on the front, made his way off his plane and handed his passport to a Romanian border agent, who scanned the document.

But there was a problem. Turkey had cancelled Kanter's passport. He was told he could call the local Turkish Embassy or try flying somewhere in Europe. But without a valid passport, Romania would not allow him into the country.

"It was of course scary," Kanter would say of the episode the next day from a press conference at the NBA Players Association's New York City headquarters. "It was scary because there was a chance they might send me back to Turkey. And if they send me back to Turkey, probably you guys wouldn't hear a word from me the second day. It would have definitely gotten really ugly."

Romania's border police assigned two police officers to remain with Kanter, though he continued to have use of his phone and was allowed to roam the airport, Romanian police told Hoffman. The officers watching him even snapped some pictures. "Haha, the police officers guarding us are taking pictures," he wrote on Twitter in Turkish. "Who do you think you are messing with you cowards?"

Meanwhile, Kanter and his management frantically reached out to anyone they thought could help them get home: his NBA employer, the Oklahoma City Thunder; the NBA; the NBA Players Association. The United States Department of Homeland Security and both of Oklahoma's elected senators, Jim Inhofe and James Lankford, got involved in the effort as well.

About four hours later, at around 5 p.m. local time, Kanter was allowed to board a flight out of Bucharest for London, England, according to Hoffman. On Sunday morning, he landed in New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. There was no time to rest, though. He decided it was time to speak out.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 22:  Turkish NBA Player Enes Kanter speaks to media during a news conference about his detention at a Romanian airport on May 22, 2017 in New York City. Kanter returned to the U.S. after being detained for several hours at a Romanian ai
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

"I love Turkey, I love my country. I am trying to speak up and be the voice of all these innocent people," he said hours later at the press conference. "Erdogan, he is a terrible man. Of course this is a strong statement. I [said] that he is the Hitler of our century. I know it is a really strong statement.

"But all these people I have seen getting killed and murdered and tortured, that is definitely one of the saddest moments I have had. I hope the world is going to do something about it."

A week later, The Daily Sabah, a Turkish daily newspaper that many experts view as a mouthpiece for the government, reported that the Turkish government had issued an arrest warrant for Kanter. His crime: being a member of a terrorist organization.

Where did this all come from? An NBA player becoming a public enemy in his own homeland?

To understand, the starting point is July 15, 2016.

It was about 9:30 that night when Andrew Finkel, a freelance journalist who's been living in Turkey for more than 25 years, began to hear the blasts. The walls in his Istanbul home began to shake. An earthquake? It couldn't be. A bomb? Then another ear-piercing buzz, followed by more rumblings. F15 military jets—he could see them from his windows—darting over the city, low and fast, leaving a trail of tremors behind.

The blare of gunfire and explosions came next. Members of the Turkish armed forces were attempting to seize control of the government from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Uniformed soldiers stood with loaded guns in their arms as tanks began rolling through the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey's capital. Istanbul's Ataturk Airport was seized. Hulusi Akar, the country's chief of the general staff, was taken hostage. The head of the Turkish Air Force was abducted while attending a wedding. The Istanbul offices of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party were surrounded by hostile troops.

"I live not far from a military camp," Finkel said. "You could hear the fighting. It was frightening."

At around 10:15 p.m., Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced that an "illegal attempt" to seize power was underway. An hour later, a military helicopter bombed a pair of police headquarters just outside of Ankara. Armed soldiers raided the offices of the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT). They pointed a gun at anchor Tijen Karas, tied her hands behind her back and handed her a statement to read on air.

"The democratic and secular rule of law has been eroded by current government," Karas announced to Turkey just after midnight. The country, she said, was now being controlled by the Peace at Home Council.

The military's statement continued, "Turkish armed forces seized the rule of the country completely with the aim of reinstalling the constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms, to make rule of law pervade again, to re-establish the ruined public order."

The Republic of Turkey was under attack.

At first, there was no word from Erdogan. The government claimed he was safe, but no one knew for sure. Then, 26 minutes after midnight, Erdogan, using the FaceTime app on a journalist's iPhone, contacted CNN Turk.

STF/Associated Press

"Let's gather as a nation in the squares," Erdogan asked of the citizens who had elected him president in 2014 following his nine-year run as prime minister (h/t Reuters). As always, his short grey hair was slicked back. "I believe we will remove this occupation that has taken place within a short time. I am calling on our people now to come to the arenas and we will give them the necessary answer."

Other Turkish leaders followed Erdogan's example. Loudspeakers of local mosques began urging citizens to take to the streets. That's when the bloodshed got worse. Protesters marching and chanting "Allahu Akbar," more gunshots, an explosion at the TRT headquarters, soldiers firing on civilian protesters, civilian protesters attacking soldiers, soldiers and police clashing in the middle of the streets, tanks firing and bombs dropped on the Turkish parliament building.

The fighting lasted until dawn. At 6:30 on Saturday morning, Erdogan, back in Istanbul, announced that those behind the coup had been defeated. By then, hundreds were dead and thousands injured, according to the country's foreign ministry (via CNN).

In the days after, a purge would begin—one that at latest estimates by turkeypurge.com has led to the arrest of more than 50,000 people.

Kanter wasn't in Turkey when members of the country's armed forces turned their weapons on their fellow citizens. As his homeland fell into disarray, he had to watch from Manhattan, where he'd been since returning the week before from a trip spent visiting youth centers in Mexico.

He has been in the United States for nearly eight years now, but Turkey remains close to his heart. Both his parents live in Ankara. One of his two brothers and his sister still reside in Turkey. His management team is Turkish, as are a number of his friends. He gives large donations to Turkish college programs and routinely shows up at various Oklahoma City Turkish-themed events.

The day after the coup, he shared a message with his 462,000 followers on Twitter. Alongside three Turkish quotes was a picture of an old man with white hair on the sides of his head and a thin mustache. Above the picture, Kanter typed eight words in Turkish. Their translation: Honorable Fethullah Gulen: "I strongly condemn the coup attempt."

It was a show of support for Gulen, a controversial cleric who has lived in exile in Pennsylvania since 1997 and whom Erdogan blames for the coup attempt and has called on the United States to arrest or extradite. Gulen, as Kanter's tweet highlighted, has denied involvement in the coup.

Kanter spent the next three weeks sending out similar tweets.

He already had a history of publicly attacking Erdogan's government. In the summer of 2015, two years after he felt his political beliefs had barred him from playing for Turkey's national basketball team, Kanter posted a picture on Twitter of former NBA player and Turkish native Hedo Turkoglu standing next to Erdogan. Turkolgu, who through a representative declined to respond to Bleacher Report, was previously one of Erdogan's chief advisors and is now the president of the Turkish Basketball Federation. He and Kanter have been exchanging verbal blows for years.

But the ferocity with which Kanter went after his home country's government after the failed coup was different. One of his tweets shared an article about Turkish soccer player Hakan Sukur, a Gulen supporter targeted by the Turkish government (and for whom an arrest warrant was issued in August). Another was a screenshot of an article titled, "Turkey's Erdogan Uses Military Coup Buzz to Expand."

He received online death threats in return.

On August 8, The Daily Sabah published an article containing quotes from Kanter's father.

"[Enes'] statements and behavior trouble our family," Mehmet Kanter told the paper. "I told Enes that we would disown him should he not change his course. He did not care."

Later that day, Enes posted a 286-word response on his Twitter account.

"Today I lost my mother, father, brothers and sisters, my family and all my relatives," it began, according to a translation by eurohoops.net. He then pledged his loyalty to Gulen and his movement before signing the letter using his new name.

Enes (Kanter) Gulen.

Who is this man that Kanter seemingly chose over his family and homeland?

The answer isn't simple.

Fethulla Gulen began preaching in 1969. Within ten years he cultivated a vast base of enthusiastic devotees all over the world. It was in his native Turkey, though, where his message resonated most. Many of the country’s citizens were grappling with how to combine their faith with Tukey's post-World War II dogmatic secular regime. Gulen’s sermons, which his followers say advocate for a more modern and progressive Islam centered on education (particularly in science), democracy and interfaith dialogue, provided some light.

Gulen encouraged his followers to go out into the world and so they did. They built a network of schools, including the one Kanter attended, that today have a footprint in more than 100 different countries. They created businesses and founded banks. They built publishing houses and acquired newspapers. They started charities. Gulen wasn’t in direct contact with any of these organizations. But all of them were formed and ran in accordance with his teachings.

But his rise to prominence didn't come without questions. He's been accused of promoting anti-semitism, though he says that's based on an old perception and that he's evolved over time. Some scholars suspect he's covertly pursuing an Islamist political agenda.

In a 1999 video of a Gulen sermon that became public, he is heard saying, "You must move in the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers. You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey."

One year later, he was charged with plotting to overthrow the state of Turkey. He said his words were not placed in proper context. Still, he decided to leave for the U.S.—where he eventually took up residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania—before charges were filed.

After Gulen fled, the political landscape in Turkey began to evolve. The religious Justice and Development Party (the AKP) gained power in the early 2000s, and its founder, Erdogan, became prime minister. Gulen was the perfect ally for Erdogan. The BBC called them "an Islamist pair reshaping a once fiercely secular Turkey."

But the alliance was short lived. Erdogan, after rising to power, had no interest in sharing it. A 2010 investigation into a Turkish intelligence agent considered a close ally of Erdogan's—an investigation led by pro-Gulen prosecutors—brought the rising tension between the two to the surface.

Erdogan then shut down Turkey's prep schools, about 30 percent of which—according to Joshua Hendricks, a sociologist at Loyola University and author of Gulen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World—were run by Gulenists. The final blow to the Erdogan-Gulen marriage came in December 2013, when a prosecutor, believed to be pro-Gulen, initiated an investigation into dozens of AKP officials.

Two years later, Turkish officials designated the Gulen movement a terrorist group.

"In 40 years, Gulenists infiltrated the state structures, particularly the army, police and judiciary," Ferhat Alkan, the Houston-based consul general of the Republic of Turkey, told Bleacher Report in a statement. "The ultimate objective of the Gulen religious cult [on July 15] was to topple the democratically elected government and institutions and destroy constitutional and secular order in a NATO ally country."

Anyone associated with this group, from army officers to NBA veterans, would be deemed a threat to the state.

Let's go back for a minute. Remember that statement Kanter's father gave condemning Enes and the Gulen movement?

"They had no choice but to denounce his actions," said Gareth Jenkins, a senior fellow at the Central Asia Caucasus and longtime Istanbul resident. "Otherwise they'd be in prison and have all their assets confiscated. That they did denounce him doesn't necessarily mean they're anti-Gulen."

The family's choice of Kanter's school might be more telling. According to Hendricks, the Gulen expert, all of Ankara's residents would be aware that the Hizmet movement was affiliated with the Samanyolu prep school Kanter attended—the place where, Kanter told Bleacher Report via email, he first "became intrigued" by Gulen's teachings.

"After spending time there I found that [the movement's] sympathy for education, hard work and equality drew me in," Kanter wrote. "However, I did not participate very much in any capacity at a young age. The kindness and respect drew me in and I had developed a respect for the people that dedicated their time."

Kanter became serious about basketball while at Samanyolu, despite Mehmet's desire for him to focus on education. And he continued to grow, eventually shooting past his 6'5" father (a former volleyball player himself), and at the age of 16, he signed with local powerhouse Fenerbahce. He remained with the club for three years before turning down multimillion-dollar contracts from both Fenerbahce and Greece's Olympiakos so that he could attend the University of Kentucky.

Chris Post/Associated Press

For years, there's been a fringe belief that the Gulen movement has been grooming Kanter to serve as a public face. Why else, the conspiracy theory goes, would a teenager turn down millions of dollars from a local team to go play in college for free? "In Turkey, people believe in those kinds of things," Jenkins added. "Things are so polarized you don't know who to believe."

All nonsense, according to Kanter.

"Turning down that money is something that happens to every person who has a chance to make the NBA," he wrote. "The NBA is the best league, and if you accept money from Fenerbahce, it would make you ineligible to play in college as per NCAA rules.

"I cannot be the face of Hizmet because I had limited involvement in Turkey and that is not my goal. I stayed silent for so long, and now I have no choice but to stand up against the oppression after it directly impacted me.

"There is no face of the Gulen movement. Gulen himself does not like that name. He prefers 'Hizmet,' which means service. The movement is not affiliated with just one person. It would be the equivalent of saying, 'Are you the face of compassion?'"

As outspoken as he is now, it took time for Kanter to feel comfortable publicly expressing his views. His first pro-Gulen tweet didn't come until October 2013. Former teammates, coaches and teachers say that they never heard him mention Gulen and that he would rarely discuss Turkey's political climate.

"He was really quiet back then," said Devin Smith, who played on Fenerbahce with Kanter in 2009. "He was really young, but it's still kind of surprising to hear him be so outspoken."

Kanter's adherence to his religion has evolved too. Timothy Epstein, a lawyer who helped Kanter fight the NCAA when it ruled him ineligible to play at Kentucky in 2010, recalls Mehmet Kanter keeping a prayer mat with him so that he could fulfill the Muslim ritual of praying five times a day.

"Enes wasn't doing that," he said. "He wasn't as active about his religion back then."

That description no longer fits. After being acquired by the Thunder in February 2015, Kanter informed the organization that he needed a quiet space where he could pray five times a day. He also observes Ramadan and has the team prepare him special Halal food.

"I was not active when I was younger, but as I entered the NBA I wanted to be a better citizen, player, and human being," Kanter wrote. "After listening to some of [Gulen's] lectures, I realized that he preached peace and service to all humanity. This type of service was appealing to me and therefore I decided to help others."

Still, any conversation about Gulen must return to the original question: What is it exactly that the cleric wants? Erdogan, who continues to trample his citizens' human rights, is an evil man. Does that explain away all Gulen's motivations?

Those who have studied the mysterious leader agree that he's clearly interested in obtaining power. "But past that it's really hard to know," said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Gulen's detractors believe he wants to control the Turkish government and transform the country into a theocracy. "It's certainly a cult," said Claire Berlinski, an American writer and Istanbul resident who serves as a scholar at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank. "You have a secret hierarchy with an extremely powerful PR apparatus and huge psychological control over its members."

His sympathizers, like Kanter, believe he simply wants to make the world a better place.

"People judge what they don't know," Kanter wrote in his email to B/R. "Gulen's movement is not a religion or a cult. It's just a social movement that promotes education, aid and social equality. If it was a cult, then all of us who aspire to be positive citizens would fall under that category."

Meanwhile, those in the middle remain unsure. “It’s a religious brotherhood, of which there are many in Turkey, that, in the absence of a single Church, would organize themselves around the teachings of a single leader who would articulate the Koran,” Hendricks says. “The Gulen movement became the largest of Turkey’s religious brotherhoods and was able to do so by sort of creating this massive social and economic network.”

James Crisp/Associated Press

But what if it's proven that Gulen was, indeed, behind the attempted coup and therefore responsible for more than 300 deaths?

"If you were a devout Gulen follower, that would throw your entire existence into disarray," Hendricks said. "Everything you've ever believed in—all the decisions and sacrifices you've ever made—it would destroy you."

All of which brings us back to Kanter.

For the past year now, he's been referring to that bloody night nearly 11 months ago as a "fake coup," despite a preponderance of evidence showing the contrary. To Kanter, the notion of Gulen playing a role in the events that transpired that night is literally inconceivable. Instead he believes—like many Gulenists—that the whole event was a false flag, one orchestrated by Erdogan to trigger a consolidation of power.

"I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that [Gulen] did not have any involvement [in the coup attempt]," Kanter wrote. "He dedicated his whole life to educating people and promoting peace. It would be out of character."

These days, it's hard to know which information coming out of Turkey to trust. But what if Kanter is wrong about Gulen? What if the man whose teachings he's chosen to devote his life to isn't as pious as his followers would like to believe?

Would Kanter be open to the thought, or has he been stripped and robbed of so much—his homeland, his family—that the thought of losing even more is just too much to bear?

It's an impossible situation for anyone to be in. No one person can solve it. For Kanter, the only thing to do is what he's doing—speak out against Erdogan, a would-be dictator intent on crushing all standing in his path, despite the consequences.

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @YaronWeitzman.