Enes Kanter Freedom, a center for the Boston Celtics, played in the NBA for a decade, but it was his off-court antics that got him the most attention. Born in Switzerland and raised in Turkey, he is an outspoken opponent of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and a supporter of the Turkish scholar Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan claims was behind the failed 2016 coup against him. In 2017, Freedom’s Turkish passport was revoked; He continued his criticism of Erdogan, referring to him as the “Hitler of our century”.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 reported on the genocide in western China, where members of the Muslim Uyghur minority were placed in internment camps. He’s also attacked other NBA stars for staying silent on the issue, most recently tweeting about LeBron James, “Money over Morals for the ‘King’.” Sad and disgusting how these athletes pretend to care about social justice. They really “shut up and salivate” when Big Boss says it.” Freedom’s comments drew standing ovations at Celtics games, and a standing ovation from Fox News — whose host Laura Ingraham once said athletes like James should “shut up and dribble.” Last month , It was suggested that his limited playing time this year was related to his comments on China, Twitter, “You keep tying me up in court, and I’ll expose you outside the court.” Celtics coach Emi Odoka responded that it had more to do with Freedom’s long defensive struggles.
This past weekend, I spoke on the phone with Freedom, who changed his last name in November, after becoming a US citizen. During our conversation, which has been edited for detail and clarity, we discussed how he became involved with the Uyghur cause, colleagues’ reactions to his candor, and Tucker Carlson and Mike Pompeo’s embrace of him.
How would you describe your political awakening?
I would say it all started in 2013. There was a corruption scandal going on in Turkey, and President Erdogan and his family were involved. That was the first time I said anything. I’ve seen the power of even one tweet. And then I began to pay attention to what was happening more and more – what was happening in the Middle East, the relationship between America and Turkey, even American politics, Turkish politics and Turkish history. Obviously, because of my social media platform, everything I said became conversational. This is why I wanted to use this platform to spread awareness of all the injustices that are happening in Turkey.
What sparked your interest in the Uyghur issue and internment camps in China?
It’s a crazy story, because this summer I was doing 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 up in front of everyone and said, “How can you call yourself a human rights activist when your Muslim brothers and sisters are being tortured and raped every day in China’s concentration camps?” I turned around and said, “I promise, I’ll get back to you.” I began to study more and more. I started with the Uighurs and then I saw what the Tibetans were going through, what the Hong Kongers and Taiwanese and the Mongolians were going through. It broke my heart. And I’m, like, “It doesn’t matter what it costs. I have to bring awareness to what’s going on.”
What is this for you?
First of all, I felt ashamed of myself because for the past 10 years I have only been focusing on Turkey, and there are so many human rights violations and injustices that are happening not only in Turkey but all over the world. And I really wanted to go deeper. I didn’t want to watch clips on YouTube or read some news and make up my mind. I actually sat down with some concentration camp survivors and talked to them. They are the ones who told me what they went through. They told me how they were tortured and raped. And this is only because they express their religion and express their freedom of expression.
What is the response to China’s human rights violations inside Turkey?
I haven’t heard anything from the Turkish side. They remained 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 breaks my heart because there are so many Muslim countries out there, Muslim leaders out there, and because they care so much about their business and the economy they’re going with China. They stay silent, but I promise myself, I have to stand up for the innocent. I will make all Muslim leaders look like apprentices of leadership because it was disgusting to me to see how they remain silent.
I’ve been urging NBA players to focus on this issue because the National Basketball Association — not just the NBA but shoe companies like Nike — has business in China. What was the reaction of your fellow players? What did you hear and what did they tell you personally?
I remember 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. The response I got from them gave me a lot of hope and motivation to fight. I remember them saying, “Listen, what you’re doing is right. Stay strong, and obviously not a lot of people will like what you say, but whatever happens, we have your back. Just keep telling the truth.” I got the same response from all of my team mates. And not just my current teammates – even my former teammates. In fact, not many people know this, but many of them write to me privately and give me talking points. So, obviously, gamers want to talk about this. Because of the NBA, because of the endorsement deals and Nike, they’re afraid to say something, but I know in their hearts they want to say something.
And did this support continue after I criticized LeBron?
In fact, one of my current teammates told me to keep telling the truth, keep calling these people, because these companies are using these players and making billions of dollars out of them. And these players are not educated enough. They put their signature on this piece of paper and sign huge deals with these companies, but unfortunately, this is a lot like modern day slavery.
You’ve said before that you’re happy to “educate” LeBron, but the problem is that the guys who don’t talk about it aren’t educated enough, or they know very well what’s going on but have business interests that just don’t want to talk?
You know, in my heart, I wish they weren’t educated enough. That’s what I want to think about them, because if you know what happens; If you knew what innocent people go through in concentration camps; If you know that whenever you buy those shoes or buy your shirt or advertise for companies, there’s a lot of blood and sweat and oppression on those items, and you’re still part of the problem, then you’re a hypocrite and it sucks. So, in my heart, I hope they are not educated enough about the situation.