“Keep calm and play ball.” That’s what some people tell me when I use my NBA platform to speak out against Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, the place I grew up and where my family still lives. The advice I prefer comes from Colin Kaepernick’s Nike ad campaign: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”
On Thursday, I won’t be able to go to work when my team, the New York Knicks, plays the Washington Wizards in London. It is altogether too risky. Erdogan uses Interpol, the international law-enforcement organization with 194 member nations, as a tool for having his critics arrested in other countries. I do not yet have U.S. citizenship, or a U.S. passport, which could offer me protection, so I can’t risk traveling overseas.
Even if I did, I wouldn’t travel this week to Britain, where I easily could be kidnapped or killed by Turkish agents. Erdogan’s arms are long. He hunts down anyone who opposes him. In 2017, his security team — or thugs, as The Washington Post’s editorial board described them — even beat up peaceful protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington.
The situation in Turkey has been very bad since a failed coup attempt in 2016. Erdogan unleashed a massive purge, firing more than 100,000 public-sector workers and imprisoning more than 50,000 people. These people are not criminals. They include judges, academics and journalists. Erdogan thinks free speech is dangerous, and he accuses critics of being terrorists.
Anyone who speaks out against him is a target. I am definitely a target. And Erdogan wants me back in Turkey where he can silence me.
One of the scariest days of my life was May 20, 2017. It was the day I realized I was being hunted by Erdogan. I was in Indonesia to run a children’s basketball camp for my charity. I was awakened in the middle of the night by knocking on my door. My manager said the Indonesian police were searching for me because the Turkish government had told them I was dangerous. We rushed to the airport and got on the next flight out of the country.
We flew from Indonesia to Singapore and then to Romania. At some point, after we left Singapore, the Turkish government canceled my passport. Police at the airport in Bucharest told me I wasn’t allowed to enter the country. I didn’t need anyone to tell me why this was happening. I was being detained because of what I had been saying about Erdogan. I was worried they were going to send me back to Turkey. I was concerned because I had to get back to the United States without a passport.
With some help from Oklahoma’s senators (I was playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder at the time), I managed to return to the United States, where I soon discovered that the Turkish government had issued a warrant for my arrest. Turkish prosecutors want to put me in jail for four years for insulting Erdogan on Twitter. They claim I am a member of an “armed terrorist organization” because I support Fethullah Gulen, a peaceful Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan blames him for the attempted coup, but Gulen has repeatedly and emphatically denied involvement.
Less than four months ago, Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, announced that his government would conduct “operations” against Gulen’s supporters in other countries. Reporting on the threat, Time noted that Turkey’s intelligence agency last March had orchestrated the abduction of six men in Kosovo, who were flown back to Turkey on a private jet.
I was lucky. Turkish business executives, educators and others around the world have been kidnapped or detained, and then deported back to Turkey by governments eager to stay in Erdogan’s good graces.
Erdogan is a strongman, and I knew there would be a backlash for the things I’ve said about him and the Turkish government, but I didn’t know it would be like this. I receive many death threats. I used to love walking around New York City alone, but I can’t do that anymore. My friends and family in Turkey could be arrested just for talking to me. I was unable to attend the Human Rights Foundation’s Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway last year for the same reason that I’m not going to London.
Some of my teammates and coaches don’t understand what I’m doing by speaking out, but they support me, for which I am grateful. They have become part of my surrogate family here in the United States.
My decision not to travel to London was difficult from a competitive standpoint but much easier from a safety one. It helps puts a spotlight on how a dictator is wrecking Turkey — people have been killed, thousands are unjustly imprisoned and countless lives have been ruined. That is no game.
Enes Kanter is a center for the New York Knicks of the National Basketball Association. He was a first-round draft pick for the Utah Jazz and played for the team from 2011 to 2015.