Enes Kanter Freedom’s Political Awakening

Enes Kanter Freedom, a center for the Boston Celtics, has played in the N.B.A. for a decade, but his off-court actions have garnered him the most attention. Born in Switzerland and raised in Turkey, Freedom is an outspoken opponent of Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and a supporter of the Turkish scholar Fethullah Gülen, who…

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Enes Kanter Freedom, a center for the Boston Celtics, has played in the N.B.A. for a decade, but his off-court actions have garnered him the most attention. Born in Switzerland and raised in Turkey, Freedom is an outspoken opponent of Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and a supporter of the Turkish scholar Fethullah Gülen, who Erdoğan claims was behind the failed 2016 coup against him. In 2017, Freedom’s Turkish passport was revoked; he continued his criticism of Erdoğan, referring to him as the “Hitler of our century.” The following year, his father, an academic in Turkey, was convicted of terrorism and imprisoned; he was released last year.

Recently, Freedom has been speaking out about the genocide in western China, where members of the Uyghur Muslim minority have been placed in concentration camps. He has also attacked other N.B.A. stars for remaining silent on the issue, recently tweeting about LeBron James, “Money over Morals for the ‘King.’ Sad & disgusting how these athletes pretend they care about social justice. They really do ‘shut up & dribble’ when Big Boss says so.” Freedom’s comments have won him loud applause at Celtics games, and a warm welcome on Fox News—whose host Laura Ingraham once said that athletes like James should “shut up and dribble.” Last month, he suggested that his limited playing time this year was related to his comments on China, tweeting, “Keep limiting me on the court, I will expose you off the court.” The Celtics coach, Ime Udoka, replied that it had more to do with Freedom’s long-standing defensive struggles.

Last weekend, I spoke by phone with Freedom, who changed his last name in November, after becoming a U.S. citizen. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how he became involved in the Uyghur cause, his teammates’ reactions to his outspokenness, and his embrace by Tucker Carlson and Mike Pompeo.

How would you describe your political awakening?

I would say it all started back in 2013. There was a corruption scandal happening in Turkey, and President Erdoğan and his family were involved. That was the first time I said something. I saw the power of even one tweet. And after that, I started to pay attention to what’s going on more and more—what’s happening in the Middle East, the relationship between America and Turkey, even American politics, Turkish politics, Turkish history. Obviously, because of my social-media platform, whatever I said became a conversation. And so that’s why I wanted to use this platform to bring awareness to all the injustice that is happening in Turkey.

What got you interested in the issue of the Uyghurs and concentration camps in China?

It’s a crazy story, because, this summer I was doing a basketball camp. All the kids were lined up and I was taking pictures with them one by one. I took a picture with this kid, and his parents called me out in front of everybody and said, “How can you call yourself a human-rights activist when your Muslim brothers and sisters are getting tortured and raped every day in concentration camps in China?” I was shocked. I turned around and was, like, “I promise you, I’m going to get back to you.” I started to study more and more. I started with the Uyghurs and then I saw what Tibet was going through, and what Hong Kong and Taiwan and Mongolians are going through. It broke my heart. And I’m, like, “It doesn’t matter what it costs. I have to bring awareness of what’s going on.”

What has that consisted of for you?

First of all, I was ashamed of myself because during the past ten years I was only focussed on Turkey, and there are so many human-rights violations and injustices happening, not just in Turkey but all over the world. And I really wanted to get deep. I didn’t want to just watch YouTube clips or read some news and make my decision. I actually sat down with some of the concentration-camp survivors and had conversations with them. They are the ones who told me what they’ve been through. They told me about how they were getting tortured and raped. And it’s just because they’re expressing their religion and expressing their freedom of speech.

What has been the response to China’s human-rights abuses within Turkey?

I have not heard anything from the Turkish side. They are remaining silent. [The Turkish government spoke out against China’s treatment of Uyghurs in 2019, but has largely remained silent.] And that’s the one thing that just breaks my heart because there are so many Muslim countries out there, Muslim leaders out there, and because they care too much about their business and the economy they are going with China. They remain silent, but I promise myself, I have to stand up for innocent people. I’m going to make all the Muslim leaders look like leadership interns because it was disgusting to me to see how they are staying silent.

You have been urging N.B.A. players to focus on this issue because the N.B.A.—and not just the N.B.A. but shoe companies such as Nike—have business in China. What has been the response from your fellow-players? What have you heard and what have they said to you personally?

I remember that the first time I talked about these issues, I sat down with almost all of my teammates and had conversations with them because their support was so important to me. And the response that I got from them gave me so much hope and motivation to fight. I remember them saying, “Listen, what you’re doing is right. Stay strong, and obviously not many people are going to like what you’re saying, but whatever happens, we got your back. Just keep speaking the truth.” I pretty much got the same response from all my teammates. And not just my current teammates—even my ex-teammates. Actually, not many people know this, but many of them are texting me privately and giving me talking points. So, players want to talk about this, obviously. Because of the N.B.A., because of the endorsement deals and Nike, they are scared to say something, but I know in their heart they want to say something.

And that support has continued after you criticized LeBron?

Actually, one of his current teammates told me to keep speaking the truth, keep calling out these people, because these companies are using these players and they’re making billions of dollars out of them. And these players are not educated enough. They’re putting their signature on this paper and signing huge deals with these companies, but, unfortunately, it’s pretty much like modern-day slavery.

You have said before that you are happy to “educate” LeBron, but is the problem that players who are not speaking out about this are not educated enough, or is it that they know perfectly well what’s going on but they have business interests and just don’t want to speak out?

You know, in my heart, I hope they’re not educated enough. That’s what I want to think about them, because, if you know what’s going on; if you know what all the innocent people are going through in concentration camps; if you know that, whenever you buy these shoes or you buy your T-shirt or you are advertising for companies, there is so much blood, sweat, and oppression on those items, and you still are part of the problem, then you are a hypocrite and it is disgusting. So, in my heart, I’m hoping that they’re not educated enough about the situation.

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