When Enis Kanter declined to follow his New York Knicks to London, where they’ll play a game against the Washington Wizards on Thursday, the team originally said it was a visa issue.
However, the real reason — at least to Kanter — is a bit more alarming: He’s fearful Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan might target him while he’s in Europe.
“Sadly, I’m not going because of that freaking lunatic, the Turkish president,” Kanter said last Friday after a win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Enes Kanter says he’s not going to London with Knicks because he fears for his life due to “that freaking lunatic, the Turkish president. There’s a chance that I can get killed out there.” pic.twitter.com/NvRDSHWB4V
— Ohm Youngmisuk (@NotoriousOHM) January 5, 2019
“There’s a chance that I can get killed out there,” Kanter said. “So that’s why I talked to the (Knicks’) front office. I’m not going.
“It’s pretty sad that just all this stuff affects my career and basketball, because I want to be out there helping my team win. But just because of that one lunatic guy, one maniac or dictator, I can’t even go out there and just do my job. So it’s pretty sad.”
So, does he really believe his life would be in danger were he to travel to Europe?
“Oh yeah, easy,” the Knicks center said.
“They’ve got a lot of spies there,” he added. “I can get killed very easy. That will be a very ugly situation.”
Sadly, this isn’t just idle paranoia, either.
Kanter has become especially critical of the Turkish leader after a 2016 coup d’etat attempt that saw a massive crackdown on opposition forces in the country.
After being detained at a Romanian airport in 2017 while playing with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kanter called Erdogan the “Hitler of our century” and detailed what he said was a campaign against him by the Turkish strongman.
According to the U.K. Guardian, he said the trouble began while he was in Jakarta, Indonesia, hosting a basketball clinic.
“My manager knocked on my door around 2:30 a.m. and said we need to talk,” Kanter said at a New York news conference. “He said the secret service of Indonesia and army is looking for you. Turkish government called them and said he’s a dangerous man, we need to talk to him.”
After he “kind of escaped the country” and made several flights to try to get back to the United States, Kanter was stopped at the airport in Bucharest, where officials informed him his Turkish passport had been canceled.
“It was of course scary because there was a chance they might send me back to Turkey,” Kanter said. “And if they sent me back to Turkey, there’s a chance you guys wouldn’t have heard a word from me the second day.”
Eventually, through the intervention of the Department of Homeland Security as well as team and league union lawyers, Kanter was able to get back to the United States.
Erdogan’s appetite for power has been increasingly apparent over the past decade; this is the kind of country where drawing a cartoon of Erdogan can get you arrested and where opposition politicians receive 25-year sentences because, well, why not? Same thing with an American pastor who spent almost two years in a Turkish prison for “Christianization.”
In fact, prosecutors have been seeking a four-year prison sentence for Kanter in connection with anti-Erdogan tweets he made in 2016.
Kanter has said Erdogan’s animus against him is so great that the government razed his brother’s school, arrested a man whose child took a picture with Kanter and even imprisoned his dentist, according to The New York Times.
The Turkish strongman has also tried to increase his reach globally, particularly through what Gonul Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute, called “Islamic soft power” in a recent piece at Foreign Affairs.
“One of the most visible means through which Turkey has broadcast its religious credentials has been by constructing megamosques around the world,” Tol wrote. “In 2015, Erdogan inaugurated one in Tirana, the capital of Albania. In the spring of 2016, he attended the opening ceremony of Diyanet Center of America, a mosque and cultural center in Maryland that bills itself as the largest Islamic campus in the Western Hemisphere. In September, he opened one of Europe’s largest mosques in the German city of Cologne, which is home to a large Turkish community. He has plans to construct mosques in Cuba, Romania, and Venezuela.”
Erdogan’s party, the AKP, has Islamist roots and has used religion as a tool of repression at home and diplomacy abroad — and often the two goals seem to intertwine.
“European countries have also grown uneasy about Turkey’s religious outreach activities,” Tol wrote. “Through the Diyanet, President Erdogan has been able to expand his influence among the Turkish diaspora across Europe. The Diyanet pays the salaries of imams who are sent from Turkey, and it tightly controls the messages they deliver.”
Is Kanter in jeopardy in London?
England certainly isn’t Indonesia, but then neither is Romania, and he ended up being detained there.
Whether or not the Islamism of Erdogan and the AKR is sincere fanaticism or a matter of convenience, meant to provide some patina of legitimacy to an ultra-nationalist cult of personality — I would tend toward the latter while pointing out the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive — isn’t the point, although there’s certainly plenty to brand Erdogan a fanatic.
In addition to the AKP, he was a member of the more-explicitly Islamist National Salvation Party in his youth, and has said encouraging things like “Turkey is not a country where moderate Islam prevails” and “I don’t see Hamas as a terror organization. Hamas is a political party — it emerged as a political party that appeared as a political party. It is a resistance movement trying to protect its country under occupation.”
But that isn’t the point, again — much like every state where some form of fanaticism has the reins of power, that power is going to be used harshly against those who openly disagree with the government apparatus. This is especially true if you’re famous.
As for Erdogan, his response was that one NBA player was as good as another: Former Turkish NBA star Hedo Turkoglu called Kanter’s fears a “political smear campaign.” Which, of course he would — he’s an adviser to Erdogan, because apparently being a slightly above-average forward gives you tremendous insights into the world of geopolitical intrigue.
Kanter, meanwhile, isn’t keen on stepping outside of the United States or Canada, at least not with the situation in his home country the way it is.
“If I’m in America, I’m safe. I feel very safe,” he said.
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