A panel hosted by the Middle East Forum May 16, 2023, titled "All about Activism" (video) and moderated by Benjamin Baird, director of MEF Action, featured insights from Enes Kanter Freedom, an NBA star and human rights activist, and national security attorney Daniel Pickard. Coinciding with the recent launch of MEF Action, a grassroots advocacy project, the panel discussed foreign political meddling, Turkey's recent presidential elections, fighting human rights abuses, and strategies for effective advocacy. The following is a summary of their remarks:
Freedom, whose prolific professional basketball career spanned play with five NBA teams, is a renowned human rights activist who has risked his career and personal safety in pursuit of calling out abusive totalitarian governments. Throughout the panel, he shared his experiences and emphasized the importance of advocating for human rights. He is deeply concerned about the lack of freedom in Turkey, especially the current restrictions on speech, religion, and expression.
"There's no freedom of speech, no freedom of religion, no freedom of expression" in Turkey, Freedom noted, adding that the Turkish regime has lost the opportunity to function as a "bridge between East and West."
Daniel Pickard is the chair of the International Trade and National Security practice at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in Washington, D.C. He has consulted with MEF on national security matters and specializes in U.S. economic sanctions, anti-boycott measures, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), and the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Explaining how a national security attorney ended up on a panel about activism, Baird said "it really comes down to the fact that MEF spends a great deal of time exposing foreign interference, whether it be from CAIR [the Council on American-Islamic Relations] or [other groups involved with] foreign regimes from the Middle East and North Africa."
Pickard fielded several questions about FARA, a law requiring foreign agents operating in the U.S. to register and disclose their activities and relationships with foreign entities. He acknowledged ongoing debates surrounding FARA's effectiveness while highlighting its relevance in maintaining a transparent political environment. "I actually have a lot of confidence in regard to the people in the FARA registration unit," he emphasized, adding, "I do think that they try to get it right."
Baird asked Freedom about the challenges he faced as an activist, and the personal experiences that shaped his dedication to human rights. Freedom candidly shared instances of backlash, including death threats, for speaking out against injustices in Turkey. He explained that in 2019, Turkey's regime issued an Interpol "Red Notice" on him for accusations of terrorism, to which Freedom responded via Twitter: "Only thing I terrorize is the basketball rim."
Just months earlier, the NBA star was at a youth basketball camp in Vatican City when a "friend" at the FBI called to explain that Turkey had placed a $500,000 bounty on him. Law enforcement authorities told Freedom that the bounty could "trigger" threats from all corners, including from the "mafia" and "even serial killers." Following this experience, Freedom recalls holding meetings with the FBI and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where he warned: "I'm not the only one that's on that list. There are actually so many journalists, so many teachers, and so many innocent people who are on [Turkey's] most wanted list."
The discussions also delved into the political implications of Turkey's Islamist regime. Pickard discussed potential economic sanctions that could be imposed on the country in response to its behavior. He highlighted the concept of "smart sanctions," which target specific individuals and organizations rather than imposing embargoes on entire countries. Pickard pointed out that the United States has designated individuals from various countries under economic sanctions laws.
Asked about Turkey's presidential election, which occurred just two days earlier and resulted in a runoff, Freedom was skeptical. "Even in the first round, if there were fair or free elections, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] was going to lose," he said. Looking towards the runoff election, Freedom insisted that "people in Turkey" must "decide if they want to live under a dictatorship or democracy."
Just days before the panel, Freedom teased that he was considering a possible run for Congress. "I open my arms to everyone," he explained when asked to elaborate about his choice to possibly run for higher office. "I have many conversations with people from different backgrounds, different colors, and different religions," Freedom added, explaining how he is open to representing all communities. The celebrity activist revealed he would prefer to run someplace "warm," such as Florida, because his professional basketball career forced him to reside in "dark and rainy" cities, like "New York, Boston, [and] Portland."
"Well, I think whatever the temperature is where you run," Baird quipped, "'Senator Freedom' has a nice ring to it."
Fielding audience questions, Pickard was asked whether the FARA Unit at the Justice Department engaged in political prosecutions of Americans involved with foreign actors. He argued that the "career prosecutors at FARA ... take their jobs very seriously and do so on an apolitical basis." However, Pickard was less confident that "a German nonprofit would be treated the exact same way as a Chinese nonprofit," but for good reasons: there are "certain countries that are of specific concern," and the FARA unit is justified in focusing its attention on these countries.
When asked about his activism on behalf of Chinese Uighurs, who are heavily persecuted by the Chinese government, Freedom remembered seeking out a concentration camp survivor to learn about the treatment of Uighurs. "We sat down and had a conversation, and she was telling me about all the torture methods and all the forced sterilization and abortion [employed by the Chinese government]. And she was telling me about all the gang-raping," he recalled.
Freedom was subsequently shocked to learn about Chinese interests in American basketball. "More people watch NBA games in China than" in the U.S., he said. Despite the risks, Freedom sought to create "a movement" involving professional athletes who would stand up to China's human rights abuses. "Because while we are dribbling the ball, on the other side of the world, people are losing their loved ones, losing their lives, and losing their homes," he told his colleagues. However, NBA officials would not stand for such comments, Freedom said. "So, [if] you say anything against the Chinese government, you'll be out of the league the next day," Freedom promised.
The 6'10" center was cut last year and failed to attract offers as a free agent, although some analysts believe his productive output should have appealed to many teams.
Benjamin Baird is the Director of MEF Action, an advocacy project of the Middle East Forum.