By: THO Nonresident fellow, Heather Marie Vitale
The fight for democracy in U.S. and Turkish relations now comes from an unexpected place: the NBA. Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter, a Swiss-born Turkish native, often comes under fire for publicly criticizing Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime. Kanter supports Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. Gulen teaches a moderate and inclusive form of Sunni Islam and his movement operates a network of schools globally, including in the United States. Kanter attended one of Gulen’s schools and considers himself an ally to the cleric, visiting him frequently in Pennsylvania. Erdogan believes that Gulen masterminded the failed 2016 coup to remove him from office, and since has worked to imprison and punish any Gulen ally.
Kanter has paid for his pro-democracy activism. The Turkish government labeled Kanter a terrorist (as Gulen’s movement is considered a terrorist group), revoked his Turkish passport, and requested an extradition warrant in order to bring him back to Turkey to prosecute him for his crimes of dissent. The NBA and the U.S. State Department have worked to protect Kanter from extradition, including arranging a personal guarantee from Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau that Kanter would be safe to play in the 2019 Christmas game against the Toronto Raptors. However, Erdogan’s influence is strong everywhere. In July 2019, the Turkish Consulate in New York prevented Kanter from holding a basketball clinic for children at the Islamic Center of Long Island due to Erdogan supporters in the local community.
Kanter’s very public role as a professional basketball player ensures he has access to greater resources for protection. While he has endured harassment, attacks, and being disowned from his family, he is far more insulated than an average dissident. He plans to continue to use his platform as a public figure to speak out against Erdogan and for the practice of democracy, and the United States must declare its support and protection for Kanter and other less notable dissidents for exercising free speech.
Modern democracy represents far more than elections, but also comprises civil society, free speech, a free press, and civil rights. Kanter and fellow U.S.-based dissidents should be able to speak out against perceived threats to democracy in Turkey freely without fear of reprisal, intimidation, or imprisonment. As Erdogan’s post-coup actions appear increasingly authoritative, the United States should double down on its efforts to promote democracy in Turkey. The White House can use its pulpit to confirm its position that it will not extradite Gulen, that it does not view Kanter as a terrorist, and that it supports Turkish dissidents’ rights to speak freely about perceived injustices.
Just as the U.S. used jazz bands to promote diplomacy in the Soviet Union, the NBA can play a greater role in flexing U.S. soft power. Demonstrating unwavering support for Kanter opens the door for other Turkish basketball players to come to the NBA. While the NBA does not have a great record of supporting free speech from its players and managers, it can increase its work within local and global communities and demonstrate its support of Kanter. Having Kanter and other players of Middle Eastern descent hold basketball clinics forces focus onto spreading the love of basketball over politics. The NBA should play more international exhibition games, including in countries like Turkey, as long as it can protect players like Kanter.
Although the United States and Turkey’s diplomatic relationship remains tenuous, the United States must continue to pursue its work in promoting democracy worldwide, including in Turkey. While Turkey may perceive the United States’ dedication to protecting Kanter negatively, the United States cannot waiver on its support for free speech, even for one individual professional basketball player.