“Go to your father’s mosque. You’re a traitor!” yelled one of the protesters who came to harass me as I was leaving a mosque after my Friday prayer service in Boston last week. As an outspoken critic of authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, it’s what I’ve come to expect.
As soon as my fellow Celtics teammate, Tacko Fall, and I left the mosque, several people, apparently sympathizers of Erdogan, called me names and harassed me. Other worshippers defended me at an hour when we celebrate peace and say prayers.
This is not an isolated incident. It came less than two weeks after Turkish ministers gathered with members of the Turkish community in New York, where they bragged about canceling my events and chasing me down in the United States. Turkish ministers encouraged them to keep it up.
One of the participants mentioned the name of the mosque I frequent for a Friday prayer in Boston, prompting praise by Turkish finance minister Berat Albayrak, who is also Erdogan’s son-in law. So it wasn’t a surprise when pro-Erdogan people gathered outside my mosque to harass me.
Constant pressure by Turkish consulates across the United States, as well as pervasive and continual harassment by the government in Turkey, has so far failed to stifle my dissent. As they increase the pressure, I raise my voice. I won’t be deterred. They’re wasting their time.
How can I stay silent? There are tens of thousands of people — including teachers, doctors, members of the judiciary and military, lawyers, bureaucrats, journalists, and activists — in prisons for years just because they’re not die-hard followers of Erdogan. Hundreds of babies are growing up in small prison cells with their mothers. Democracy today is on life support, if not dead, and anyone who speaks up faces prison time.
I am immensely blessed to be in America. This country has given me so much since I came here from Turkey as a teenager, and I feel obliged to give back to the community. I spent the summer crisscrossing the nation, holding 50 basketball camps for kids in 30 states. It has been a pleasure to see kids learning team play and leadership while having fun.
Immediately after the horrible mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, where 22 people were killed, I held one of my basketball camps in the grieving city. My goal was to send an unmistakable message to those who promote hate, and to stand with the people of El Paso at a time of difficulty. This is how we triumph over evil.
Planning these camps is no easy task. While my basketball camp team had been scrambling to hold one camp after another, Turkish diplomats were busy calling and intimidating venues to cancel them, including the one we planned in Boston.
Basketball is my escape. Whenever I am on the court with my teammates, either practicing or playing a game, I focus entirely on basketball. If I were to bring any of these conversations to the court, it would be very selfish of me. But as soon as I step off the court, these questions come to my mind: What can I do for innocent people in Turkey who are suffering? Am I doing enough? How can I raise awareness?
Professional athletes have an enormous opportunity to be a source of inspiration for the younger generation, lead by example, and prove to them that as long as you stand up for what you believe in, everything is possible. I am looking forward to giving my best to the Boston Celtics and enjoying this new chapter of my NBA career with people in this great city who have welcomed me warmly.
I have a prominent platform and I want to use it to promote respect for human rights, democracy, and personal freedom. For me, this is bigger than basketball. Being a champion of tens of thousands of voiceless people back in my home country carries a risk that includes death threats and arrest warrants.
Earlier this year, Turkey issued an Interpol Red Notice to hunt me down for being a “terrorist.” I was humbled by the overwhelming support I received from fans and public figures. This is what motivates me to keep going.
I would languish in prison if I were in Turkey. Being apart from my family and friends has taken an enormous toll on me. But nothing good comes easy.
I want to thank everyone, including politicians, government officials, journalists, activists, other public figures, and the fans for standing by me during this challenging period. It encourages me to keep it up, and it gives me extra strength on the court.
I have been receiving death threats for years now. This is the price I am ready to pay if this is what it takes to stand up for what I believe is right. It’s worth it.
Enes Kanter is a center for the Boston Celtics.