On Saturday, Turkey revoked the passport of Turkish-born Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter, leaving him stranded in Bucharest, Romania and facing deportation to a country where he could be jailed for his repeated public criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government. It was a gratuitous and egregious thing to do, and therefore absolutely in character for a nation whose politics are tumbling out of control. Kanter's unexplained detention became a global story, and he was eventually released; on Monday, he told the broader story of his detention at a press conference in New York City, and then on ESPN's Outside The Lines.
As Kanter related on Monday, there were signs that his native country was going to take some sort of action against him before he was detained in Bucharest. Kanter told OTL host Bob Ley that he was awakened at 2:30 a.m. in his hotel room in Jakarta, Indonesia, which he was visiting as the seventh stop of his global goodwill tour, by his manager. "He said, 'come to my room, we need to talk,'" Kanter said. "And he told me the Turkish government called Indonesia and said 'Enes Kanter is there, he's a dangerous man, and we need to talk to him.' And they sent the [Indonesian] secret service and the army to the school where we just did [a] basketball clinic."
Kanter hastily left the country hours later, in what he described as an "escape." That trouble caught up with him in Romania, and Kanter was only able to make it to the U.S. through the grace of his green card and his fame—the NBA and the NBA Players Association, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the U.S. State Department, and both of Oklahoma's arch-conservative Senators all worked on his behalf. Of course, most people fleeing repressive regimes—let alone Muslims seeking asylum in the United States—do not get this sort of extraordinary assistance, or have the sort of public profile or personal wealth that Kanter has.
On Monday, Kanter said that he believed that, had he been deported, he would have been treated like thousands of other Erdoğan critics. "It was scary," Kanter said at the press conference, "because there was a chance they might send me back to Turkey. And if they send me back to Turkey, probably you guys wouldn't hear a word from me the second day. It would have definitely gotten really ugly."
It's unclear whether Erdoğan told his bodyguards to attack protestors in Washington, D.C. last week, although the speculation alone says a great deal about who Erdoğan is and the direction in which he is trending. It is clear that those bodyguards did rush and kick and choke and punch those peaceful protestors, as local police tried to pull them away. On Monday, the Turkish foreign ministry summoned the American ambassador in Ankara and lodged a formal protest—against the police officers, for not dealing more harshly with the protestors. What the Washington Post describes as Turkey's "semiofficial news agency" released an edited video of the assault "that it said showed the genesis of the attack: a water bottle, thrown by a protester."
This is not nearly the most egregious or most brutal recent act of repression by Erdoğan, who has spent the last year in a near-unprecedented campaign of massive purges and repression, and appears generally to be cruising ever deeper into a grandiose and paranoid autocracy. But the pettiness of last week's brawl in D.C.—not just using a sledgehammer to squash a fly, but the desperate narrative backfill claiming that the fly was at fault—is instructive. It certainly explains why the Turkish government would do something as petty as revoking Kanter's passport.
Because of his support of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen and his criticism of Erdoğan, Kanter was effectively in exile long before his home country got around to pulling his passport. "The last time I talked to my family was close to two years," Kanter told Ley. "Right now, if I get in any contact with them, they'll be in jail. That's why none of my Turkish friends, none of the people that I know in Turkey, I cannot really be in contact with them." He noted that his father, a professor, was fired last year. Kanter's family publicly disowned him for his activism, but Kanter believes that they are still being surveilled, and could be jailed if he called them. He said that his father has been threatened and spit on in public because of his son's beliefs. "Almost every day I get death threats in America (and) Turkey," Kanter said at the conference. "I try to be the voice of all these innocent people and kids... I believe whatever it takes, it is important for the kids and our future. Those kids will be who will make the changes."
Kanter wants to become a United States citizen, he says, both because he knows he cannot go home and because of all the support he has received in the United States as an immigrant fleeing a country that is no longer safe for him. "I feel like this is my home now," he said at the press conference. On OTL, he was more direct. "I'm countryless right now," Kanter told Ley. "And I'm open for adoption."