OK, so, the news of the day is that the government of Turkey wants to throw an NBA player (Enes Kanter) in jail for four years, having identified him as a terrorist on the basis of some tweets he has made criticizing the president of Turkey.
If you’ve followed this story at all, you already know that these criticisms by Kanter are some of the most fearless trolling the internet has ever seen. Since a failed coup attempt in 2016, Erdogan has been throwing people in jail by the busload for the crime of disliking him out loud, a strategy intended to purge and intimidate his critics.
Kanter was left off the Turkish national team over all this. He’s been detained in Romania after his Turkish passport was canceled, his family has publicly disowned him, and if he doesn’t soon become an American citizen, he will be a man without a country.
So what is this all about?
Pretty much it comes down to a battle between two men over what Turkey ought to be like, with Kanter caught up as a high-profile accessory.
These are those men, and this is what the deal is:
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, The Dictator
The president of Turkey, Erdogan is one of these hilarious man-baby dictator guys who has to have his butt kissed by everyone all the time or else he starts sending out the men with guns. He had a 13-year-old kid arrested for criticizing him on Facebook. He had a waiter arrested for not serving him tea. He’s banned Twitter and Wikipedia. Turkey has more journalists in prison than North Korea, China, Cuba and Russia combined, and he’s jailed tens of thousands of members of various state institutions for their political positions.
Turkey operates under the facade of a democracy, but Erdogan has essentially made it illegal to criticize him. It is even illegal now for the legislative branch of the government to investigate the executive branch, meaning there is not much stopping Erdogan from doing whatever he wants and lying about it.
Naturally, not all Turkish people are happy about this.
Fethullah Gulen, The Preacher
There are a lot of ways to describe Fethullah Gulen, but broadly speaking he is the leader of a religious political movement that advances the ideas of service and an open exchange of ideas between faiths and political parties.
With his stated belief in science, inter-faith dialogue and multi-party democracy, Mr Gulen has also won praise from many non-Muslim quarters. He is an intensely emotional preacher, whose tearful sermons seem to strike a deep chord in his listeners; but the movement he heads is remarkably pragmatic and businesslike.
His millions of followers are said to belong to Hizmet, which means “the service,” and by all accounts they, over a period of many years, secretly infiltrated the Turkish government and Turkish society at all levels — this all has a strong Red Scare smell to it — until, as the story goes, there was a coup to try to take over the government in 2016.
Suffice it to say Kanter has doubts about the story.
In any event, Gulen said he didn’t have anything to do with whatever happened here. He’s living in Pennsylvania now, while the Turkish government keeps begging the U.S. to extradite him on terrorism charges.
The United States has basically told Turkey to go pound sand. It doesn’t support the overthrow of democratically elected governments, it says, but it doesn’t see any evidence Gulen is a terrorist.
Erdogan has blown a lot of hot smoke up into the air about this.
Enes Kanter, The Basketball Player
Kanter is a native of Turkey who thinks Erdogan is a raging doofus and takes every opportunity he gets to taunt him on Twitter from his home in Oklahoma City, where he plays for the Thunder, and sometimes travels across international borders with a Turkish passport.
Kanter is a big fan of Gulen’s, a position that has come at considerable personal sacrifice. After the failed coup last year, Kanter’s father publicly disowned him for supporting Gulen, and did so in a most crushing manner.
“With a feeling of shame I apologize to our president and the Turkish people for having such a son,” he wrote in a pro-government newspaper.
As with seemingly everything in Turkish politics, there is some question about the sincerity of that sentiment and to what degree it may have been coerced. Either way, Kanter and his family have been put in a dreadful position, particularly now that Erdogan wants to put Kanter in jail for some tweets.
Turkey wants Kanter brought up on terrorism charges, but considering the U.S.’s position on Gulen, there’s not much chance of Kanter being deported, and he knows it.
There are lots of twists and turns and misdirections in even the recent history of Turkish politics, and I think for the reason this story hasn’t gotten much coverage in the United States. The U.S.’s refusal to extradite Gulen and Kanter may have strained diplomatic relations, but that’s a secondary concern.
Enes Kanter is the biggest free speech martyr in the spectrum of American sports at the moment, even if his concern is rooted halfway around the world.