Celtics or CIA? Gulenist Hoops Star Enes Kanter Rides Both Benches
Despite not even leaving the bench, Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter was the one drawing the headlines in their season opener at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The 6’10” Turk sported shoes emblazoned with the words “free Tibet.” “Under the Chinese government’s brutal rule, Tibetan people’s basic rights and freedoms are non-existent,” Kanter said in a video posted on social media, explaining the move.
Two days later, he accused “heartless dictator of China” Xi Jinping of running slave-labor camps in Xinjiang, demanding he “free the Uyghur people” and “stop the genocide now!” Kanter went even further on October 26, directly calling for the overthrow of the Chinese government and sharing his new “freedom shoes,” which show him playing basketball with a cartoon version of Jinping’s severed head.
“Change is coming and no one can stop it” he wrote, sharing the hashtags #FreeHongKong and #StandWithTaiwan. He also challenged Nike founder Phil Knight, as well as basketball greats Michael Jordan and LeBron James, to visit with him the “slave labor camps” in Xinjiang, where he implied Nike shoes are made.
While Chinese media have dropped Celtics games as a result, Kanter’s political stands have been met largely with rapturous applause in official circles closer to home. “His only crime is having the courage to speak out against oppression,” reacted Florida Senator and Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio. Meanwhile, conservative media outlets like The National Review and hosts such as Glenn Beck have described him as a “hero.”
On social media, however, the response was more mixed. While many praised his actions, others pointed to his troubling history of working with many of the world’s worst human rights abusing nations, and questioned whether the whole thing was a national security state PR stunt. “Enes Kanter is CIA” became a meme around the net, with many speculating about his links to Washington.
MintPress spoke with Danny Haiphong, contributing editor to the Black Agenda Report, a journalist who specializes in covering U.S.-China relations. Haiphong, a passionate Celtics fan, said that he was not surprised by the mixed response to Kanter’s statements:
Enes Kanter deserves all the scrutiny he has received. Kanter’s mentor Fathullah Gulen has protected CIA agents and his anti-China operation comes just weeks after the CIA announced a renewed focus on China. Kanter has rapidly become the face of the U.S.’s propaganda campaign against the Beijing 2022 Olympics alongside NED-backed forces.
“Speaking truth to power”
While there is no evidence that the 29-year-old star is a CIA employee, Kanter does have a great many troubling relationships with some of America’s most powerful state officials. In July, for instance, he traveled to Washington to meet senior war planner John Bolton, a key figure in the Iraq War deception and former President Donald Trump’s most hawkish National Security Advisor. The two met in the Russell Senate Office Building, Kanter announcing that he had had a great discussion on “human rights” with his “friend.”
The Turkish star also met with Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner. Sharing a video of himself with Kushner and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Gilad Erdan, he claimed that “good things are ahead.” He also has a close relationship with Rubio, whom he described as a champion of freedom around the world. “Huge thanks to Senator Marco Rubio for standing up for Human Rights, Freedom, Democracy,” Kanter wrote on his Facebook page, alongside a video of their meeting in the Capitol Building.
The professional basketball player is, however, far from partisan. In 2019, he met with Bill and Hillary Clinton, talked about President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkey and presented the Clintons with two Boston Celtics jerseys with his number and “Clinton” on the back. He also publicly campaigned for Democratic Representative Eliot Engel’s reelection against progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman. A former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Engel has taken a number of hawkish positions on the Middle East and been vocally critical of Erdoğan. Kanter has also worked with his home-state senator, Ed Markey (D-MA), on Turkish affairs.
It is further known that Kanter has some sort of relationship and communication with the FBI, the agency even installing a panic button in his house.
Throwback to one of Kanter’s all-time CIA moments campaigning for Eliot Engel https://t.co/YPRkWbdgL2
— Milorad Dodik 🇷🇸🇨🇳 (@GavinFailson) October 21, 2021
Kanter is a regular on the Western government-sponsored human rights NGO circuit, speaking a number of times at the Human Rights Foundation (HRF). The HRF is headquartered in the Empire State Building — an apt address for a group that serves the U.S. empire. The HRF’s founder, Thor Halvorssen, is the son of a former Venezuelan government official widely accused of being a CIA informant and a gunrunner for the agency’s dirty wars in Central America in the 1980s, and is the cousin of convicted Venezuelan terrorist Leopoldo Lopez. Lopez was a leader in the U.S.-backed coup in 2002 and a wave of political terror in 2014 that killed at least 43 people and caused an estimated $15 billion worth of property damage. A major figure on the right-wing of Venezuelan politics, Lopez told journalists that he wants the United States to formally govern the country once President Nicolas Maduro is overthrown.
Kanter is also friends with another HRF regular, Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector who makes gigantic sums of money telling lurid and demonstrably false stories about her former home country. Sharing a video of them playing basketball together, Park thanked Kanter for “speaking truth to power.” “You are a true inspiration and I am honored to call you my friend!” she added.
If Kanter is indeed speaking truth to power, he is close enough to it that he can whisper. Another case in point is his girlfriend, Arianna Rockefeller, the scion of the Rockefeller banking dynasty.
A committed Zionist
A second, highly unusual feature of Kanter’s politics is just how passionately he is committed to the state of Israel. Indeed, by this late stage in his basketball career, Kanter spends almost as much time with senior Israeli officials as he does on the court. In January, he announced publicly that he had enjoyed a “great conversation” about “human rights and justice” with Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Lior Haiat. A few weeks later, Kanter had another meeting, supposedly on the same subject, with his “great friend” and Likud politician, Ofir Katz. That Israel is one of the world’s worst human rights abusers, and has been labeled a racist Apartheid state by the United Nations and human rights groups like B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch, appears not to bother him. Indeed, Kanter met Kushner at an AIPAC event, where he also had, in his words, the “honor and pleasure to be in the company” of officials from the UAE and Bahrain — two more of the planet’s worst human rights abusing nations (although both are close partners of the United States).
Earlier this year, Kanter also co-authored a Newsweek editorial alongside the Israeli Permanent Representative to the UN, in which he denounced the “extreme left’s…singling out of the only Jewish state” as a “despicable” act of anti-Semitism. The only way to defeat racism, they argued, was to come together to support the state of Israel.
Kanter oversees his own basketball academy and teaches other Muslims that their opposition to Israel is based purely on anti-Semitic bigotry and not for political or moral reasons. He is attempting to start another basketball camp in Israel. Such a committed Zionist is he that he was named the 11th most important pro-Israel influencer. In response, he said he wanted to make it to the top three next year.
His support for Israel wildly contrasts with his countrymen: only 2% of Turks hold a positive opinion of Israel, with 86% feeling negatively towards the country. In fact, in Turkey Israel is even less popular than ISIS.
Working the give-and-go with Gulen
Kanter’s strange politics largely stem from the fact that he is a member of the Gulen Movement. A conservative Islamist fraternal organization based around preacher Fethullah Gulen, the movement has expanded across over 100 countries and can boast millions of members in Turkey and further afield. The Gulen Movement is an economic powerhouse, owning media outlets and a bank and operating over a thousand schools worldwide, including an estimated 120 in the U.S. (growing up, Kanter attended one of these schools). As such, the Gulen Movement operated almost as a state within a state in Turkey, with Gulen himself encouraging his followers to take up positions in the police, local government administration, judiciary and other influential roles. Followers are encouraged to donate between 5% and 20% (or even more) of their incomes to Gulenist projects. Considering that he has earned more than $100 million playing basketball, Kanter alone could be a significant source of income for the organization.
Gulen’s followers often display a zealous devotion to their leader, whom they treat almost as a living deity. Gulen himself often rewards his most adoring devotees with “divine” gifts. In 2019, he took a sip of tea from a glass and instructed his attendants to mail the rest to Kanter. Far from taken aback, Kanter appeared to be rapturously grateful. “I am not worthy of this. Why this grace and goodness towards me?” he wrote on Twitter, sharing a video of the event.
Gulen fled to the United States in 1998 after the Turkish government began investigating his movement for infiltrating state organizations. He lives in a luxury 25-acre compound in rural Pennsylvania. Successive Turkish governments have claimed, without providing evidence, that he is a CIA asset. However, he is clearly being protected by the U.S. government, which has refused Turkish extradition requests. A number of senior CIA officials wrote endorsement letters for his 2008 green card application.
The Gulen Movement actually enjoyed a warm relationship with Erdoğan and his religiously conservative AKP Party when they originally came to power. However, cracks began appearing in 2010, after the preacher condemned Erdoğan for sending aid ships to Gaza. A staunch supporter of Israel, Gulen condemned the entire Gaza Freedom Flotilla and continued to stand with Jerusalem, even after the assault on the Mavi Marmara (a Turkish vessel) by Israeli special forces.
The rupture came in 2013 over the AKP’s response to a corruption scandal. Erdoğan, then prime minister, presented the affair as a conspiracy cooked up by Gulenists, and closed down many of the movement’s schools in retaliation.
Three years later, in 2016, military units attempted to overthrow Erdoğan in a bloody and unsuccessful coup. The army took over a number of key cities and Turkish jets even rained bombs down on the country’s parliament. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands injured. The government accused Gulen of being behind the attempt and hit back, purging thousands of his followers from positions of power in the state. While Gulen himself strenuously denies involvement, even later condemning the coup, foreign countries adversarial to Turkey, such as the United Kingdom, concluded that Gulenists were likely the only force that could have realistically attempted such an undertaking. By his own admission, Kanter was at Gulen’s side on the day of the coup — a fact that makes him a suspect in the Turkish government’s eyes.
The Turkish government has since designated the Gulen Movement a terrorist organization, as did a number of other countries and regional organizations such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Kanter’s political advocacy against Erdoğan began at exactly the point when his leader turned against him. Kanter has since condemned Turkey’s involvement in attacking U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria and labeled Erdoğan the “Hitler of our century.” He has even gone so far as to demand sanctions against his home country. “I think if America put sanctions on Turkey, this is going to solve the problem,” he said in an interview with Fox News. Sanctions have been responsible for the destruction of many of Turkey’s neighbors, including Syria, Iran and Iraq, where U.S. sanctions starved between 1 and 1.5 million people to death in the 1990s, according to senior UN officials.
The Turkish government has canceled Kanter’s passport, leaving him effectively stateless. They have also issued a number of international arrest warrants, meaning that Kanter cannot leave the United States. His father — also an important Gulenist — was charged and imprisoned, although he was later released.
When Kanter’s case is discussed in corporate media, he is nearly universally described as being persecuted solely for criticizing Erdoğan. Never mentioned is that he is one of the most visible and vocal members of a group designated as terrorists by a NATO member state — a group that very likely masterminded a coup that killed hundreds — a journalistic omission that crosses the boundary from irresponsible to intentionally deceitful. It is quite possible to feel sympathy and solidarity for Kanter, and oppose Erdoğan and the AKP, without pretending that this context is irrelevant.
“Enes Kanter claims he stands for human rights in China yet is a proud supporter of Israel and its colonial oppression of the Palestinians,” Haiphong told MintPress, adding:
His mentor, Fethullah Gulen, has deep connections with the CIA and publicly condemned the Gaza flotilla raid in 2010 even after Israeli forces killed several activists trying to ship supplies to the blockaded open-air prison. Kanter’s political motives are thus not merely questionable but clearly aligned with the most reactionary forces on the planet.
Turkey has traditionally attempted to play East and West off against each other, but relations with the U.S. have soured in recent years. Erdoğan accused the U.S. of supporting the 2016 coup attempt. In October, he also threatened to expel ten Western diplomats. Meanwhile, Washington has balked at Turkey’s decision to purchase an S-400 air-defense system from Russia and blocked Turkish acquisition of the new F-35 fighter jet.
Kanter to CIA: ‘Put me in, coach!’
Kanter is far from the only celebrity to have a questionable relationship with the national security state. Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, for instance, co-wrote a New York Times op-ed with John McCain, in which the pair called for more U.S. interventions around the world. Meanwhile, Jack Ryan star John Krasinski often does public relations for the CIA, describing them as amazingly “apolitical.” “They’re always trying to do the right thing,” he said of the agency, claiming they “care about the country in a bigger, more idealistic way; …the CIA is something that we should all not only cherish, but be saying thank you for every single day.”
To conclude: is there any hard evidence that Enes Kanter is CIA, as the meme suggests? No. The CIA does not work like that; they would not be foolish enough to formally employ celebrities on their books, leaving a paper trail. There would be no utility in that, as it would delegitimize all involved. It is far better to openly liaise with these individuals. However, is Kanter willingly and enthusiastically playing the role of national security state tool because it aligns with his (and his movement’s) politics? Very much so. And in the end, there is little tangible difference between the two. “Enes Kanter’s politics are as shitty as his game,” Haiphong concluded.
Feature photo | Boston Celtics’ Enes Kanter before an NBA basketball game against the Toronto Raptors, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Boston. Michael Dwyer | AP