The ongoing Olympic basketball tournament showcases many of the NBA’s top foreign imports, including legends like Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili. Yet one of the league’s up-and-coming international stars is currently in the midst of a very different relationship with his country. In fact, Oklahoma City Thunder big man Enes Kanter could be all but officially exiled from his home country of Turkey.
Kanter’s predicament requires a good deal of background on the state of Turkish politics. On July 15, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan withstood a coup attempt that supposedly originated with members of the military. Erdogan has responded by consolidating power and purging the country of opposition members, many of whom are affiliated with the Gülenist movement, often referred to as “Hizmet” (or “service”) by its members. Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (or AKP) has denounced the Gülen movement as a terrorist cult, and its leader Fethullah Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania in what was initially a self-imposed exile, has been blamed for the coup attempt. However, no outside observers have been able to confirm the coup’s origin or even named those who headed it within the country. That lack of clarity has caused many, including Gülen to claim or suggest that Erdogan staged it to gain further power.
Kanter was educated in Gülenist schools and has been a proud member of the movement in adulthood. That affiliation likely led to Kanter not being chosen for the national team for last summer’s EuroBasket tournament, and it certainly caused him to receive death threats on social media in the aftermath of the coup attempt.
Kanter has now paid a much more serious price for his political beliefs. According to reports from Turkey, Kanter has been disowned by his family. From Seyma Eraz and Yunus Paksoy for Daily Sabah:
Kanter’s father Mehmet Kanter disowned his son for his ties with the Gülen Movement. Saying that Enes was hypnotized by the Gülenist Terror Organization [FETÖ], his father wrote: “I apologize to the Turkish people and the president for having such a son.” […]
Stressing that he has been educating students for almost 30 years, Kanter said: “His statements and behavior trouble our family. I told Enes that we would disown him should he not change his course. He did not care.”
The elder Kanter said he has not been able to communicate with Enes since 2015. “I would not have taken Enes to the U.S. for the basketball camp where his talent was discovered had I known that it would come to this point,” he said.
Also speaking to Daily Sabah, Mehmet Kanter’s cousin Bilal Kanter said the Kanter family does not want Enes to bear the Kanter name. “We had warned him previously about his ties with the FETÖ. We have not been able to reach out to Enes for a long time,” he said, adding that the Gülenists controlled Enes for his wealth and reputation.
Kanter responded to this disowning on his Twitter account, where he has been very supportive of Gülen and very critical of Erdogan for weeks. The messages are in Turkish, but A.J. Kahn translated the saddest one at Vice Sports:
Enes is far from home. “Today I lost my father, my mother, my siblings and all of my relatives of 24 years,” he wrote in his Hey Universe statement. He went on to describe his upbringing and a life of learning from Fethullah Gülen’s organization. “God exists, grief does not,” Enes concluded. He signed it “Enes (Kanter) GÜLEN.”
A separate Daily Sabah article quotes Kanter as effectively calling himself a willing martyr for the Gülen movement. While the newspaper’s translations are not wrong, the presentation of them is quite biased. Daily Sabah was created in 2014 as a pro-AKP alternative to the Gülenist Today’s Zaman, which was seized by the government in early March. Its articles paint Gülen in the most negative light possible, and any reference to Erdogan or the AKP is overwhelmingly positive. To give just one example, the paper’s lead story on Sunday’s post-coup “democracy rally” in Istanbul effectively reads as propaganda in the context of more measured takes from Reuters and other outlets. Plus, their article on Kanter neglects to mention that he is a staunch Gülenist because the same father now disowning him chose to bring him up within the movement.
That’s not to say that Kanter and Gülen are beyond reproach. For one thing, Kanter’s decision to sign his last name as “Gülen” and rhetoric that discusses sacrificing for the movement do nothing to refute the claims that it has much in common with a cult. A 2010 feature in The New Republic indicates that Gülen’s practices and financial dealings have been questioned by writers and academics with little observable connection to AKP, as well, so it’s not as if all criticism of the movement relies on blind antagonism. The movement’s charter schools have been investigated by the FBI for all manner of possible violations, and their operations are shrouded in secrecy and controversy. It’s not clear that Kanter has been brainwashed, but he is at least as biased as those on the other side.
I frankly do not know enough about Turkish politics to give an accurate read on the greater implications of this news. But it does not take much expertise to know that this is an incredibly sad situation for Kanter and Turkey as a whole. The country’s political divisions have caused a very public humiliation for a man who in many other scenarios could have been known as a national hero. No one is blameless, but that only makes things more tragic.
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