A President and A Preacher Clashed Over Turkey. Now Each Has an NBA Star on His Side.

NBA players often miss games because they are recovering from injuries or worried about getting hurt. One pro basketball player is sitting out an NBA game for fear that he will be assassinated if he shows up.

New York Knicks center Enes Kanter is a citizen of Turkey (basketball is big there thanks to an old American TV show), and a harsh critic of Turkey’s semi-authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Kanter believes that Erdogan’s people might have tried to kill him had he gone to the Knicks’ game against the Washington Wizards today in London.

Kanter is also an associate of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic leader who founded a religious and educational movement called Hizmet (“service” in Turkish), which has millions of followers in Turkey. Gulen and Erdogan used to be political allies who helped each other gain power and influence, reintroduced religion into the Turkish political system, and resisted the Turkish military, but they ended up bitter rivals.

****History Time (You Can Skip If You Want, But It’s Interesting Stuff****

Turkey has banned religious influence in politics for decades, and the country’s powerful and virtually autonomous military, which likes to sweep in and take over the country every 10 years or so (the Turkish army is like El Niño with tanks), has long operated as the “guardian” of secular democracy in the country.

However, Erdogan, the leader of the Justice and Development Party (known in Turkish as the AK Party, an unintentional pun that grows more apt every year), an Islamist party, gained power through elections in the early 2000s. To guard against the military stepping in again, he teamed up with Gulen, who the military had kicked out of the country in 1999. By this time, Hizmet had made a fortune from test prep centers (it’s kind of the Kaplan of religious movements) and purchased various newspapers, television stations and other businesses in Turkey.

Hizmet and the AKP used their combined power to fend off the military and revive political Islam in Turkey. Part of this process involved putting Gulen’s followers in positions of power – many were appointed police officers, judges, and so on.   If you guessed that this caused a power struggle, you’re right!

In 2013, a bunch of Erdogan’s allies were arrested in a big corruption scandal (involving Iran and gold and $4.5 million in a shoebox; standard stuff). Erdogan blamed the scandal on a conspiracy by Gulen’s people (who, remember, were now occupying key positions throughout the police and legal system), and the AKP and Gulen movements have been at odds ever since.

So when yet another attempted military coup happened in 2016, Erdogan again blamed Gulen and has been calling for his extradition from the US (where Gulen has lived for 20 years), but the US has so far not bought the story that Gulen – whose stated beliefs are pretty modern and peaceful – is a terrorist or a coup plotter.

*****OK, Back To The Present******

If that was too complicated, think of it this way. Basically, Erdogan was Kobe Bryant and Gulen was Shaquille O’Neal – they won (political power and influence) together, but eventually Los Angeles Turkey wasn’t big enough for the both of them. In the end, the more ruthless player stuck around, but without a strong partner, Kobe Erdogan has had to rely on a whole lot of shooting to beat his opponents.

It’s ironic that President Erdogan has relentlessly condemned Saudi Arabia and its leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, for ordering a hit on journalist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi within Turkey’s borders. Under Erdogan, Turkey has repeatedly targeted Turkish critics abroad, and particularly those in the United States. To be fair to the Turkish President, while MBS’s personal security killed and dismembered a critic inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Erdogan’s personal security detail merely beat up protestors outside the Turkish embassy in Washington. I believe members of the dictators’ club refer to that as “restraint.” (I suspect Donald Trump tried to Tweet about the incident with the hashtag “#goals” before Ivanka stopped him). Erdogan has also gone after journalists who allegedly supported the coup; in a chilling euphemism, he insists that they were “taken to the right place.”

Now, Erdogan’s government is targeting Enes Kanter, who admittedly follows and frequently visits Gulen at the cleric’s Pennsylvania home but is adamant that neither he nor Gulen advocate violence. Turkish authorities, for their part, say they aren’t trying to murder Kanter; they only want to arrest him and charge him as an affiliate to terrorists. Surely that’s ok, right? Kanter’s fears of assassination, combined with Turkey canceling his passport just to be jerks (as announced by ANOTHER NBA figure, former player Hedo Türkoğlu, now an Erdogan adviser because of course) have kept him out of London anyway. The Knicks center should be safe from both hit squads and handcuffs for the time being. but Erdogan’s critics within Turkey – reporters, Gulen supporters, Kanter’s family – are unfortunately not so lucky. In the long run, time will tell which NBA-affiliated force – the AKP, Hizmet, or even the military (Turkoglu did a stint in the Turkish army too) – ultimately wins a game that has had a major impact on millions of lives in the country and abroad.

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