NEW YORK — For someone who was nearly a political prisoner, Enes Kanter was in a good mood Monday. The Thunder center was safe and sound in New York City, only two days after his passport was revoked at a Romanian airport, allegedly at the behest of the Turkish government. Kanter returned to the United States on Sunday morning and held a news conference Monday to explain how he made it back to American soil.
Kanter initially posted to Twitter on Saturday to reveal his passport had been taken away by Romanian authorities. He explained Monday his problems began in Indonesia, where his manager alerted him that officials were looking for him on behalf of the Turkish government. Kanter flew to Singapore and then Romania, where he was detained for a few hours, allegedly because his passport had been “cancelled” by Turkey.
After he tweeted a video, the NBA, State Department and Oklahoma senators Jim Inhofe and James Lankford all worked on Kanter’s behalf to get him back to the U.S. After flying from Romania to London, Kanter was able to get on a flight to New York by showing his green card to Homeland Security personnel.
Kanter has been an outspoken critic of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose regime has tilted toward authoritarianism since his election in 2014. Kanter has called Erdogan the “Hitler of our century,” and the president’s tenure has been tenuous at best.
Erdogan was connected to a massive corruption scandal in 2013, a year before he was elected president. Since taking office, he’s been accused of human rights violations while also restricting the freedom of the press. Last spring, Erdogan pressured German chancellor Angela Merkel to prosecute a German satirist who criticized Erdogan in a poem. Then last July, the Turkish Armed Forces led an attempted coup against state institutions, including Erdogan. And this April, Erdogan won—in a controversial vote—constitutional referendum that grants him sweeping powers over the other branches of government. (Upon winning the referendum that could ruin the Turkish democracy, Erdogan received a congratulatory phone call from The White House.)
Given his thirst for control, it would not be surprising at all if Erdogan tried to bring Kanter back to Turkey for some form of punishment. Kanter is also a supporter of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher who began to oppose the current regime after the 2013 corruption scandal. Gulen, wanted by the Turkish government, currently lives in exile in Saylorsburg, Penn. Kanter's connection to Gulen previously caused a rift in his family.
With all the complicated political factors in play, it’s remarkable Kanter made it back to the U.S. safely. What’s fascinating is how the treatment of Kanter stands in stark contrast to the treatment of thousands of other Muslims and Americans who were detained because of the president’s Muslim ban earlier this year.
Sens. Inhofe and Lankford, both Republicans, hardly opposed the president’s initial Muslim ban in January. In a statement, Inhofe praised Executive Order 13769, which suspended the entry of Syrian refugees and blocked the entry of people traveling from Muslim-majority countries Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. The night the Muslim ban was struck down by the 9th Circuit Court, Lankford was on CNN saying he believed the president had the right to enact such a policy.
While it’s commendable that Inhofe and Lankford worked to help bring Kanter home, it’s perverse that his stature as a basketball player is likely the only reason they got involved. Kanter’s situation couldn’t have been much different than the thousands of foreigners who had their visas revoked under the Muslim ban, not to mention the green-card holders who were detained because of confusion under the executive order’s implementation.
Homeland security, under the order of the president, who has received complete support from Sen. Inhofe and Sen. Lankford, willingly split up countless families under the Muslim ban, stopping students from returning to school, detaining college graduates, and ruining many more lives. And both Inhofe and Lankford supported the president’s airstrike on Syria, condemning Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, a tragic display of hypocrisy when both senators supported the president’s decision to ban Syrian refugees from fleeing the violence.
Kanter, a Muslim green-card holder, deserved to return safe and soundly to the U.S. His criticism of Erdogan is a reflection of the greatest American right, to speak freely without fear of prosecution.
“Thank you for all those people who supported me,” Kanter said Monday. “I’m playing basketball in front of millions of people, that’s why I’m here now.”
That Kanter’s status as a basketball player helped him return home is both remarkable and sad. Unfortunately, thousands of others who are threatened to be alienated by our president don’t have the luxury of a multi-billion dollar corporation and multiple branches of government working on their behalf. Hopefully Sen. Inhofe and Sen. Lankford—as well as any other members of congress who supported the Muslim ban—make Kanter the example moving forward, not the exception.