Activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet.
Who would have thought that I would spend my 20s fighting for my father and thousands of people incarcerated unjustly in my home country of Turkey? With my father being arrested and dragged through courts in Turkey for many years, and my family being intimidated and harassed, it was a fight borne of necessity — a worthy fight. He spent seven years in and out of Turkish courts and jails, finally being cleared last month when terrorist charges were dropped.
Now I am facing a fight of choice. I can either stay silent, play my games with the Boston Celtics and mind my own business, or I can fight until the last prisoner of conscience is out and free. The degree of difficulty of my fight will depend on how many people are willing to extend support and raise their voices. I can’t do this alone.
There is nothing more genuine in human rights struggles than when a family member is standing up. You can’t politicize it and you can’t dismiss it as a show. It is much louder and effective. I am not delusional about the consequences we may face in Turkey when we speak up. I understand the risks. But we have got to start from somewhere. Staying silent only increases the appetite of the authoritarian government.
In the past seven years, I have done everything I could. I wrote op-eds, appeared on TV networks, radio shows, and showed up at events. It is only a tiny part of what needs to be a broader movement challenging the notion that, as a Western ally, Turkey couldn’t be nudged into the right direction.
I was born to a Turkish family in Switzerland. When we moved back to Turkey, I always considered it a European country, a quickly modernizing regional economic powerhouse with strong ties to the European Union through trade and to the United States through NATO. Whatever is happening in my home country now would be unthinkable just over a decade ago. To see thousands of innocent people imprisoned just for their political opponents, to see journalists locked up just for exposing the truth, to see Kurdish people targeted, harassed, and tortured simply for their ethnicities … It’s nearly unimaginable. The massive transformation of the country is a strong signal that we should never take our freedoms and rights for granted.
Turkey’s recent history is also encouraging for me. It shows that, as a country, we had tasted for decades what it means to be a democracy, albeit flawed, and a country that values rights and freedoms. For us, it is not a distant illusion that is incompatible with our culture. It was a real experience that could be replicated in the future.
But we must hurry. Not only because there are tens of thousands of people suffering at the hands of the authoritarian government in Turkey, but also because the country’s transformation might be irreversible. From the education system to military recruitment, the country’s DNA is being changed in ways that would serve the current political mindset for decades. It is a change that hurts the country’s chances to make peaceful political transitions.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has ruled the country for over 17 years, is thriving on partisan discord, polarizing rhetoric, and divisive politics. It is in his blood to divide the country between “us” and “them,” designate dissidents as scapegoats for the country’s woes, and cast himself as the nation’s savior.
It is no secret that the world has seen the disturbing rise of strongmen. Many countries, including democratic ones in Europe that have fought against tyranny for the good part of the last century, are now voting to keep strongmen at the helm. It is a troubling trend and a grim reminder that sustained vigilance is a must for every society.
My fight will be ineffective if I do it alone. I believe there is something everyone can do. I recently launched a campaign called You Are My Hope, hoping to collect as many signatures as possible and present them to the White House and the United Nations. Celebrities like actors Alyssa Milano, Terry Crews, and Donnie Wahlberg, and US politicians like Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, and Representative Eliot Engel, Democrat of New York, have already endorsed the campaign. The more signatures we have, the more we can put pressure on the Turkish government to release innocent people imprisoned for simply being a dissident.
My father is free. But my happiness is bitter without the freedom of others. His freedom means our fight worked. And it means it may work for other innocent people if we put in more effort. Injustice feeds on silence. Oppression thrives on inaction. And no one will grant your rights unless you demand them.
Enes Kanter is a center for the Boston Celtics and a human rights activist.