Why the New York Knicks Keep Dunking on Erdogan

New York Knicks center Enes Kanter (00) dunks the ball over Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) during the first half at TD Garden Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The 7-foot center Enes Kanter has become a symbol of Turkey's never-ending purge—and a potential assassination target.

Last updated January 31, 2019

New York Knicks center Enes Kanter (00) dunks the ball over Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) during the first half at TD Garden Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

This article first appeared here on January 24, 2019. 

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No matter where I have lived as an adult, my teams have always been the New York Yankees, New York Giants, New York Rangers, and, especially, the New York Knicks. I remember going to my first professional basketball game when I was 6 years old and holding my father’s hand as we climbed to the top of Madison Square Garden to watch Walt “Clyde” Frazier and the Knickerbockers play. I saw a rookie named Patrick Ewing and his Knicks beat the mighty Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan the day after Christmas in 1985—a real-life miracle on 34th street. I missed the 1994 NBA finals, but my dad filled me in when I called home from the central post office in Damascus.

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan

It’s been pretty bleak ever since; the Knicks haven’t been relevant for more than a decade, and my interest has naturally waned. But I recently started checking the Knicks box scores with renewed devotion. That’s because my worlds have collided on the team’s center court.

In September 2017, a 6-foot-11-inch Turk named Enes Kanter was traded from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Knicks. Born in Switzerland to Turkish parents and raised in Turkey, Kanter played junior basketball for Turkey’s famed Fenerbahce Spor Kulubu before moving to the United States in high school and entering the NBA draft in 2011. But it’s not his Turkish heritage that sets him apart; there have been previous Turks in the NBA, including Mehmet Okur and Hedo Turkoglu, to name just two. But none of those predecessors—unlike Kanter—was ever targeted for arrest by Turkey as a result of his religion. Kanter is, in addition to being a Knick, the highest-profile and most outspoken disciple in the United States of the cleric Fethullah Gulen.

I interviewed Kanter in December 2017 for Salon’s “Salon Talks” series. In our conversation, he expressed concern that the Turkish government might try to harm him if he ever left the United States and Canada. That fear motivated him to stay behind in the United States when the Knicks played the Washington Wizards in London on Jan. 17. Kanter expressed alarm that that Turkish agents might kill him while in London. As it turned out, Turkey issued an international arrest warrant for him. It could have been worse: Turkish agents might have attempted to abduct him as they have tried, with varying degrees of success, to kidnap followers of Gulen around the world.

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Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his Justice and Development Party (AKP), a long line of prosecutors, and apparently millions of Turks believe that Gulen and his followers planned and executed the failed July 2016 coup that took the lives of about 250 people. Since then, the Turkish government has branded the Gulenists as terrorists, likening an organization that calls itself Hizmetor “Service,” to al Qaeda. And it’s indisputable the group did some odious things during the decade or so when it was allied with the AKP such as fabricating evidence against their opponents, enabling the detention of journalists, illicitly recording Turkish officials, and engaging in questionable financial practices at Gulen-run charter schools.

Does any of this make Enes Kanter a terrorist? He certainly has cultivated a ferocious on-court image, and he seems to enjoy a beef or two with other NBA players on Twitter, but Kanter struck me as a friendly and courteous young guy. He is no doubt committed to Gulen and well prepared with Hizmet talking points—I couldn’t lay a glove on him during the interview—but violent? Perhaps it is the star-struck Knicks fan in me, or perhaps Kanter is extremely good at dissembling, but more likely, the accusations leveled against him are absurd.

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Although Kanter isn’t a terrorist, Erdogan isn’t wrong to think of him as a threat. He is using his considerable platform and the modicum of protection he has as an NBA player to highlight the unprecedented wave of repression that has been underway in Turkey since at least 2014, but that accelerated markedly after the coup attempt.

Kanter’s drawing of attention to what is happening in Turkey is a good thing, because he is just one of thousands upon thousands of Turks who have fled their country or fear going back. A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a story about brain drain from Turkey. It was a good article, but it did not quite capture what has been happening to Turks. They come from all backgrounds and professions with various means, from NBA star to graduate student. They are the forlorn who you meet in every college town and big city. Some live well, while others scrape by driving Uber or Lyft. They are trying to lay low, afraid to communicate with friends and family and wary of strangers speaking Turkish. They scramble for fellowships and semester appointments so they don’t have to go back to a country that threatens their freedom. The pro bono departments at law firms large and small are working overtime to help these people stay in the United States, though even there they may not be truly safe.

After all, U.S. President Donald Trump has reportedly explored ways to trade Fethullah Gulen, a green card holder who lives in Pennsylvania, to the Turkish government even though it has not produced enough evidence to have the cleric extradited. Recently, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu handed his American counterpart an “enemies list” of alleged Gulenists in the United States whom the Turkish government wants extradited. It seems unlikely that the Trump administration would act on Turkey’s demands, but the administration has made a virtue of breaking with past practice and norms. The State Department has essentially looked the other way when its own foreign service nationals—Turks employed by the U.S. Embassy in Turkey—have been arrested for allegedly conspiring with Gulen. One of those employees is now facing life imprisonment in Turkey. And Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump confidant, was recently spotted enjoying an evening out in Ankara with Erdogan and his foreign minister, even though the Turkish government has vowed to kidnap Turks who have sought refuge abroad from them and their ruinous crackdown.

Admittedly, there are few followers of Gulen who have reflected on their own contribution to their sudden fall in esteem in Turkey. Gulenists have cultivated among many Westerners the idea that they are a face of “liberal Islam,” incorporating important Western ideals and scientific principles into their worldview. Yet for millions of their fellow Turks, Gulenists are part of a dangerous cult seeking to overthrow the AKP government with whom they were previously allied for about a decade. To Kanter, this is just government propaganda that people are forced to believe out of fear for their own safety. There is truth to this, given the prevalence of “preference falsification” in authoritarian political systems. But comparing Erdogan with Hitler, as Gulenists often do, isn’t a satisfactory explanation for the depth of Turkish society’s newfound revulsion for someone who was once among the country’s most popular preachers.

But if Turks have legitimate suspicions of Gulenists, there is nothing legitimate about the way the Turkish government has acted on its concerns over the past four years—its thuggish manner of hunting down of its own citizens abroad, divesting people of everything they have, and purging hundreds of thousands of schoolteachers, accountants, scientists, judges, doctors, lawyers, journalists, bureaucrats, and professors. According to international human rights groups, Turkey’s purge has been carried out on the thinnest, if any, of evidence.

That’s why I now look at the box scores with a little extra attention every morning. I hope Kanter has a triple double, that he is a monster pulling down rebounds, and that he will be part of the future of the Knicks. Because if not, he, like so many others, will be vulnerable to the pathological vengeance of Turkey’s leaders.

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