Enes Kanter Freedom, the National Basketball Association (NBA) star player and human rights activist, spoke to a December 30th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about his ten-year public opposition to the dictatorial regime of Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The following is a summary of his comments:
Freedom, born in Switzerland and raised in Turkey, recalled his formative years when he was indoctrinated by the anti-Western, anti-American, anti-Israel, and anti-Christian propaganda that saturates the Turkish media and press. Confused by his grade-school classmates who pressured him to join them in burning the American flag, Freedom heeded the counsel of his mother who advised him to "not hate anyone before you meet him."
Years later, Freedom attended a California high school and was moved by the kindness of his basketball teammates, who reassured him that he could openly practice his Muslim faith in an America that guaranteed religious freedom. When a Jewish-American teammate invited him to attend a combination Thanksgiving-Sabbath dinner, he recalled his mother's advice and overcame his hesitation. "It was so beautiful. ... I was thinking to myself, 'Are they trying to brainwash me?'" The experience made him realize how pernicious was the propaganda he had been fed during his early years in Turkey.
After attending the University of Kentucky, Freedom went on to play for the NBA in 2011. In 2013, while still playing in the NBA, a corruption scandal in Turkey involving President Erdoğan moved Freedom to be publicly critical of the Turkish regime. In 2016, following a failed coup d'état against Erdogan, Freedom tweeted about Erdoğan's war on Turkey's innocent "journalists, police, judges [and] prosecutors" who had criticized government corruption. The outsized response to his single tweet motivated him to learn more about the political landscape of Turkey, America, and the Middle East.
In retaliation for Freedom's political activism, Erdoğan targeted Freedom's family still in Turkey. Freedom's father Mehmet, a scientist, was fired from his position; his sister, despite having attended years in medical school, was unable to find a job; and his younger brother, who had dreams of joining Freedom in the NBA, was unable to find a place on any basketball team. The Turkish government cancelled Freedom's passport, labeled him a "terrorist," and placed him on an Interpol list.
Following failed attempts in 2017 to kidnap him from Indonesia and Romania and return him to Turkey, Freedom was advised by U.S. senators, congressmen, and Homeland Security to seek his own protection and apply for U.S. citizenship. Despite his family's post disavowing Freedom's actions, the Turkish government raided his family's home, confiscated all electronic devices, and jailed Freedom's father in 2018. Although U.S. politicians, celebrities, and the media pressured Erdoğan and secured Mehmet's release, Freedom's family continues to be harassed and marginalized by the public. In a 2019 Washington Post op-ed, Freedom recounted his ordeal since taking a public stand against the Erdoğan regime. In 2021, he became a U.S. citizen, legally changing his name to celebrate America.
Freedom continues to speak out against the Erdoğan regime, despite the fact that his activism has prevented him from seeing his family for the past ten years. Cautioned by his teammates that his family could pay a heavier price for his continued activism, Freedom said that there are many other families in "situations way worse than mine." The website turkeypurge.com lists the affected families and provides details on the many critics of Erdoğan who have lost their jobs and been incarcerated.
Freedom has been publicly countering Erdoğan's dictatorship because "first, it's my country, and second, Turkey could have been the bridge [between] Islam and the West." Although saddened by the many teens in Turkey's schools who are being indoctrinated in antisemitism and anti-Western hatred, he considers himself "one of the lucky ones" who left as a teen. He knows that variations of the flag burning incident he confronted as a child are being repeated at schools in some Middle Eastern countries where government-controlled indoctrination requires children to step on American and Israeli flags before attending class. "That's what breaks my heart the most."
Putting his activism into practice, Freedom was moved to initiate two projects. One became clear to him after attending a Holocaust Remembrance Day at the invitation of Israel's consul general in Boston. Following a firsthand account from an elderly survivor, he concluded that "it was not only Jewish people's job to [talk] about [the] Holocaust," but it is also a responsibility for everyone to teach its lessons to ensure it will never be repeated.
Partnering with a Muslim school in Brooklyn, Freedom's first initiative saw to it that the Holocaust was taught to the Muslim students. When he met with them, they expressed their gratitude to him and asked how they could help. In Turkey, Hitler is reviled, but there is little education as to why, particularly since the government-controlled education system is dedicated to teaching Jew-hatred, which is accepted without question by a large segment of the population. Those who don't ascribe to the regime's indoctrination remain silent, fearing that if they voice any opposition, they will lose their jobs and be branded "terrorists," as Freedom has been.
His second initiative established a basketball camp in Jerusalem where Christian, Muslim, and Jewish children bond over a two-week stay. A Palestinian Arab girl, who overcame her initial resistance to attending any Israel-sponsored program, apologized to her teammates after the first week. Freedom witnessed a game at the camp where a Jewish boy passed the ball to her. After she promptly scored a basket, they "high fived" each other. Calling the exchange "the most beautiful moment I've ever seen in my life," Freedom knew the program was a success.
In addition to his activism, Freedom has worked with congressmen in the House and the Senate to sponsor a bill opposing the Turkish regime. As a NATO ally "which does not act like a NATO ally," Turkey is "a Trojan horse for Putin." Critical of President Biden for breaking his campaign promise to "fix" Turkey after calling it "the biggest problem in the Middle East," Freedom surmises that the White House avoids taking action because of Turkey's aid to Ukraine. Turkey also plays both sides against the middle, leaving Washington "confused" vis a vis its policy towards Ankara. "Erdoğan is playing this game with Ukraine, and then is ... shaking hands with Russia."
Freedom would like to see the Biden administration "take a first step" and issue sanctions against officials in Erdoğan's regime. Given Erdoğan's threatened invasion of Greece, his harassment of Cyprus, his purchase of S-400 missile defense systems from Russia while seeking F-16 jets from the U.S., and his hostile acts towards the Kurdish people, Freedom urges American politicians and policymakers to take a stand. "The reason [I'm] so outspoken about some of the issues is because I love my people. My problem is not with my country. My problem [is] with the current regime."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.