Enes Kanter Knows When He Speaks Out About Turkish Human Rights Abuses, People Listen
You Are My Hope
To call Boston Celtics big man Enes Kanter outspoken is something of an understatement.
But the 6-foot-10 center has good reason to be, having struggled with politically-motivated harassment by the Turkish government for years because of his and his family's political views.
Now, with Turkey's entrance into neighboring Syria following the decision of the U.S. to pull its troops out of the troubled country -- adding yet another layer of complexity to an already-fraught regional political milieu -- Kanter felt the need to leverage his platform as an NBA player to shed light on what is going on in that part of the world.
Speaking at a press conference organized by a pair of U.S. Senators (Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore) opposed to the heavy-handed tactics Turkey has been using both domestically and in Syria, Kanter explained (via USA Today's Jeff Zilgitt), "You guys know my story because I play in the NBA, but there are thousands and thousands of stories out there that are way worse than mine ... That’s why I’m trying to use my platform to be more supportive of innocent people."
Despite his fame as an NBA player, Kanter's activism has impacted his own life, with the Turkish government accusing him of having ties to terrorist groups and revoking his passport (making it impossible for him to visit family and very difficult to travel) while making hs family's lives at home in Turkey incredibly difficult. He has had to watch his father lose his professorship at a Turkish university, and his sister unable to find work despite completing medical school.
He's even had to miss the New York Knicks' game in London last season and games against the Toronto Raptors out of fear of being detained by order of the Turkish government, saying he fears for his life.
Opposed to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's treatment of political dissidents and minority groups like the Kurds (who have reportedly been severely mistreated by Turkish and Turkish-supported forces in Syria since the United States withdrew its troops), Kanter has chosen to use his position to shine a light on the human rights abuses taking place in his ancestral homeland despite the high personal cost. Why?
"It’s bigger than myself. It’s bigger than NBA. It’s bigger than basketball because what’s happening in Turkey is a human tragedy. I have a platform. When I say something, it becomes a conversation." And Kanter's outspokenness has won him powerful allies, including Senators Markey and Wyden, the latter of whom notes the Turkish big man is, "using his platform to speak out passionately and eloquently about what is happening in Turkey" at a critical moment.
Senator Markey added that Turkey has fired or dismissed over 130,000 civil servants and arrested or imprisoned 80,000 of its own citizens, blocked nearly a quarter of a million websites from public view, shuttered over 180 media outlets, detained more than 60 journalists and has closed numerous non-governmental organizations on supposed ties to terrorism as examples of Edogan's assault on domestic freedom in Turkey. Kanter himself has been harassed by Turkish nationals suspected of having ties to Erdogan here in the US, too.
At the same time, President Erdogan has resettled 365,000 Syrian refugees in lands previously occupied by 180,000 Kurdish and other peoples in a process described by some as "ethnic cleansing" as local paramilitary groups attack and pillage political enemies with evident impunity. Mindful of the 1915 genocide committed by the then-Turkish empire on Syrian Christians, much concern both in the area and around the world for what is happening in the power vacuum created by the US withdrawing its troops created.
"I have to do this for all those innocent people," explained Kanter of why he continues to put his own safety and that of those he loves at risk. And while he could indeed keep his mouth shut, collect his check and wash his hands of a fight that does not directly affect him, Kanter has chosen a different path in a season seeing the NBA dragged into conflicts over similar human rights abuses in China that have garnered a much more muted response, in part due to the league's complicated ties to that country's basketball culture.
The issue of whether and if so how far athletes should be expected to use their platform for a greater good has perhaps never been more contentious -- or impactful. It remains to be seen whether Kanter's path will produce fruitful results, but no one can fault him for trying.