‘They Don't Respect Human Rights. They Hide the Truth.’
An interview with professional basketball player and human rights activist Enes Kanter Freedom.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of an interview with Enes Kanter Freedom, NBA player, human rights activist, and all-around American hero. Born in Switzerland of Turkish origin, Freedom has been on a crusade to call attention to human rights violations the world over, with a particular focus on the People’s Republic of China’s genocide of the Uyghurs and the Turkish government’s assaults on democracy. He changed his last name to Freedom upon becoming a U.S. citizen late last year, and regularly sports dramatically painted shoes calling attention to the issues near to his heart. Danielle Pletka spoke with him on Wednesday, February 11, a day before he was traded from the Boston Celtics to the Houston Rockets, who then waived him. This interview also includes several notable excerpts from Dany and Marc Thiessen’s podcast What the Hell is Going On? Dany and Marc spoke to Freedom that same day.
Danielle Pletka: One of the things that I wondered was whether the NBA was leaning on you really hard. Because, of course, the NBA has its own very substantial financial interests in China. What kind of pushback have you been feeling?
Enes Freedom: I talk about Turkey and the problems are happening in Turkey for 10 years. I did not get one phone call. I talk about China one day, my phone was ringing once every hour. The first game I wore my Free Tibet shoes—I'm sure you guys know the shoes and designs that we come up with—in half time, my manager messaged me and said, “Every Celtics game is banned in China.” It took them 24 minutes, because one half is 24 minutes, to ban every Celtics game in television over there in China. I was shocked. I was like, that clearly shows one more time that there’s dictatorship over there.
But at the same time, obviously, it’s been a very lonely road. That’s what I will say. Because many of the athletes—not just from the NBA, but all around every league, or coaches or people who has anything to do with sports—are scared to support me out loud. Whenever I have a conversation privately, they're like, “Listen, man. You know, we love you. We support you. We’re going to pray for you. But we just cannot do it out loud.”
Pletka: You were a big supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. You were a big supporter, a big critic of police use of force. You spoke out very strongly. And you were in a very big group of athletes, some of whom took the knee during the national anthem to protest. What I don’t understand is why the sports associations are so willing to see us criticize America, but are not willing to see us criticize other countries? Do you think that’s just still all about money?
Freedom: I think it is. Yes, that’s the biggest part of it. I mean, I’ll give you an example from NBA. There are more people watching the NBA last year in China than the American population. Over 400 million. Every year, the revenue is $5 billion. I think people can be thinking, “First of all, that’s not my country that I’m going to talk about, and the stuff that I will talk about is not going to change anything. So why would I put myself in a situation like that?”
But I wish that more athletes would join me. It will be even a bigger movement. But it's just, when the Black Lives Matter protests were happening, I was the third. We have 500 players in the league. I was the third player in the whole league [who] went out there and protested, because I do believe there are problems. Problems are happening in this country and we need to call them out. We need to hold people accountable. But obviously, unfortunately, when it comes to a country that they are doing business with, they’re like, as soon as the situation that is going to affect their pocket, they remain in silence.
One association I want to give a credit to talking about what's going on—and they were so brave—was WTA, Women Tennis Association. [Editor’s note: Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai accused a senior Chinese Communist Party official of sexual assault in November and then, as one news report described it, “dropped out of public view for a while.”] The Women’s Tennis Association, they said, “We do not care about the business. Even if we lose hundreds of billions of dollars, we are going to stand with our player.” I was like, “Take notes, every athlete or association, organization, or company. Take notes.”
Pletka: Did you see, by the way, that the chairman of the International Olympic Committee did an interview with Peng Shuai, which really looked more like Chinese propaganda than it did an open inquiry?
Freedom: First off, people need to understand, the IOC, International Olympic Committee, is scared to talk about human rights because they know China is one of the worst in this regard. They will rather take China’s might than talk about values. The reality is, the people need to understand, the IOC is in bed … with the Chinese government. They do not care about human rights. They care about publicity and money.
I mean, they just organized [the Olympic] games in a country where there is press brutality, torture, mass arrest, execution, labor camps, religious suppression, and pretty much genocide. Pretty much genocide. So I feel like we should definitely call out this IOC because they are part of the problem, and they're helping Chinese government to spread their propaganda.
Pletka: Let's just pick one case: China. What should we be doing? What do you think? You are telling us, “Notice what they're doing. Acknowledge their crimes against humanity.” Okay. That's right. What do you think the right steps are for a country that stands for freedom, like the United States?
Freedom: First of all, when you pick up something and you see it made in China, put it down. It's that simple. That's the easiest thing you can do.
And I think the people, especially people like us who have a platform, I feel like we need to hold people, organizations, associations and companies and sponsors accountable, because they are the part of the problem. And they're pretty much working for China to spread the Chinese propaganda. That is the one important thing.
Then other than that, obviously there are so many things that we can be doing. We worked on a Uyghurs bill and it passed. Now we are working on another bill about Hong Kongers. I want to create another bill for Tibetans.
But other than that, I feel like everywhere we go, we need to talk about these injustices happening. Not just in America, but all over the world. Because, I mean, people are people; it doesn't matter. He's American, he lives in China, he lives in ...
Freedom: Exactly. We need to bring awareness.
Marc Thiessen: What do you say to the athletes who are there in Beijing competing? It's a real conundrum for many of them.
Freedom: I mean, first of all, all the athletes or people needs to understand. I say this over and over again, but the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party, does not represent Olympic core values of excellence, of respect, of friendship. They are a brutal dictatorship and they engage in censorship.
They threaten freedoms. They don’t respect human rights. They hide the truth. And while we are talking, right now there is a genocide happening. And the IOC is obviously ... I say this enough, but their complicity echoes the CCP propaganda.
I feel like I understand the athlete’s perspective, right? They're working so hard their whole life and they maybe were going to get one shot in the Olympics. They're working so hard for four years to get to that level.
But every time I talk to an athlete, I have said this. “Think about this. If your mother, if your father, if your sister, if your daughter, if your wife was on those concentration camps right now in China, getting tortured and raped every day, would you still remain silent? Would you still go to that country and compete and be part of the propaganda?”
I have not seen one person, or I have not seen one athlete, that answer me that question. They are staying silent. They are not saying yes or no. They just remain silent because they know it’s a shame.
But all the gold medals in the world that you champion is not more important than your morals, your principles and your values. It's not worth it. It's not worth selling your morals to a country like China.
I mean, especially when you say an athlete, right? They have a huge platform to inspire and affect so much, especially our young generation. Because everything now, social media and everything we do, becomes a conversation. They even follow what we eat, what we wear, what we do and stuff. So I feel it’s a huge responsibility on our shoulders.
During the Olympics back in 1936 [the Berlin Olympics, hosted by and designed to elevate Hitler’s Germany], we were like, “Wow, that's a shame.” Now underlying history, we’re going to look back to this day in 2022 and say, “Wow, it is a shame.” And it is just unbelievable how we couldn’t see it, but I think the change is happening. You look at the opening ceremony, right? Sixteen million viewers tuned in to watch the opening ceremony. And people needs to know—all time low for Olympics ceremonies, online or television. You look at 2018. It was in South Korea, Winter Olympics. It was 28.3 million. So it’s down 43 percent. I mean, this is what you get for turning athletics into propaganda for an evil empire. So it is happening. But to me, 16 million is still a lot. Diplomatic boycott was good. Still shows something, but it’s not enough. And so I just hope that all the athletes or all the people will be part of the history and the wrong side that they’re participating in the Olympics right now.
Pletka: I know that you’ve told the story of your family. You’ve told the story about how they’ve been forced to disown you, how your father did time in prison, how your brother’s been thrown off of his teams, and that you haven't spoken with them since 2015. Have you ever thought about trying to bring your family out of Turkey and to the United States?
Freedom: That’s a good question. That is the goal. At the end, my family is the most important thing to me. And well, unfortunately right now I cannot bring them over here because the Turkish government took my family's passports away. So they’re not really allowing them to travel anywhere outside of Turkey. So they pretty much keeping them as hostages.
But that is a goal. Whenever I have a conversation with my brother, so my brother is in Poland playing basketball overseas. Whenever I have a conversation with him, he is always trying to find a way to bring my family here to America.
Pletka: One of the things you said on our podcast really interested me. You mentioned the fact that there are all these Muslim countries out there who have remained silent in the face of what is being done to other Muslims. Why is it that countries like Saudi Arabia, countries like Iran, like Turkey, that don’t hesitate to speak out for Muslim rights in other parts of the world, are so uninterested in the rights of the Uyghurs?
Freedom: I mean, there are so many—Pakistan, Malaysia. There’s so many other Muslim leaders and countries out there that they're talking about the issues are happening in a Muslim world. But when it comes to China, when it comes to Uyghurs they are remaining silent.
People need to understand because of economy, because of the business that they are doing with the Chinese government. And they know that as soon as the president, or the country, or one of the officials criticize the CCP, then the old economy or the business or whatever they are doing will be going down.
So I feel like it’s just a shame that they’re just too scared to say that. That was the one thing that really frustrates me. I was like the people talking about the issues around the world all the time. But when it comes to that country, China, they are just so scared.
And everybody like all these world leaders, all these Muslim leaders, countries, athletes, or actors or people who have a platform. I was like, you know what, just forget about it. I’m just going to go out there and just say it like it is and expose them any way I can. But I do believe because of the economy, they are just remaining silent.
Pletka: Yeah. But you know, China has needs too. And that is what always interests me as a point of leverage. One of the reasons that China has built a relationship for example, with the Islamic Republic of Iran, one of the reasons that China has built relations in the Middle East and in Africa is because they’re worried about their energy supplies.
Freedom: No, yes for sure. I do believe that. But for some reason, people cannot see that. I feel like all the leaders, especially Muslim leaders out there [think] there are other Muslim countries out there can talk about this issue. Why my country, why me?
Pletka: Well, you are completely right. And you’re right in calling them out. It’s important to keep doing that. Let me ask you about the United States. You were a critic of Turkey. Your voice became louder, your critics became louder, your shoes became louder, your wardrobe changed, all of these great transformative things happened.
But one of the most interesting things to me is that you went on Fox News, you’ve been on all the networks, but you went on Fox News, you went on to Tucker Carlson's show. You’re going to speak at CPAC. There was a nasty, nasty article in The Atlantic that basically implied that you were a right wing conservative stooge. How worried are you about that sort of a portrayal?
Freedom: So first people need to understand, I go on pretty much every outlet to talk about my message. I go on Fox, I go on CNN, I go on MSNBC. I feel like there is a really, really good message. And that message is about human rights. And I do believe every part of the country needs to hear that.
Years ago, I went to DNC to speak, and now they invited me [but we] had games those days. So I don’t know if I’m going to be able to even go. They invited me to CPAC. I was visiting with so many senators and from right and left. And whenever I put a bill out there, it’s usually a bipartisan bill.
I do work with Republicans and Democrats. So besides my teammates, obviously my teammates are like my family. I want the whole world to understand I don't have a side. But when it comes to my teammates, obviously I have to give them a big explanation because of whenever I go … why am I just going onto this show [Dany and Marc’s podcast].
They’re not against it. They just want to know. But I'm like, listen, that doesn’t mean I support them. That means I just want my message to get out there in every part of the country. But they just telling me that obviously be careful of who am I align myself with. They always tell me just balance it out. And if you're going to go in a show in a right wing, make sure you do the left wing.
Just don’t look like you’re on one side, and I’m just keep telling them I’m not a Republican or Democrat. I don’t have a side, or I don’t even care about politics. You look at all my interviews or anything. I never said vote for this guy, we should do this and that. I always talk about human rights. And there’s a difference between politics and human rights.
I'm actually telling everybody I’m not a Republican or I’m not a conservative, or I’m not a Democrat either. I’m just trying to do best I can to speak up about human right abuses. And I’m getting calls from these shows and I'm just accepting their offers. Just talking about human rights.
Pletka: You’re using your freedom to talk about freedom. I think that’s a good answer. Can I ask you a little bit about Islam for a second?
Freedom: Of course.
Pletka: So Erdogan is unpopular for a whole variety of reasons. He's unpopular because he’s turned Turkey into a dictatorship. He's unpopular because he’s marginalized all of the secular parties. He's unpopular because he made up a coup and arrested tens of thousands of people. Because as you’ve said, he’s got more reporters in prison than even North Korea.
But as a Muslim, what do you think of his Islamist agenda? He took the Hagia Sophia, which had been a church, it had been a mosque, then a church, then a museum. And he made it back into a mosque. He’s a big supporter of the Ikhwan, the Muslim brotherhood in the rest of the Middle East. What do you think of that?
Freedom: So, first of all, I want to really make it clear about the Hagia Sophia, because I actually grew up in that area and there are so many mosques. They are not even half full. Why would you turn another U.N. heritage site into a mosque? That is so disrespectful to other religions and other cultures and other people. I actually said it out loud very clearly, but I think one thing about him is just, he’s trying to do everything he can to stay in power.
Many people believe and there are actually many reports out there and very solid reports out there saying he’s working with ISIS on the ground. He tortures people. He put people in jail. But one thing people needs to understand: Turkey is a beautiful country and Turkey could have been a bridge of Islam and West. Just because these problems are happening in Turkey right now, it is impossible.
He threatens Europe, saying that if you don't listen to what I have to say I'm going to let all these refugees go to Europe. And European countries are scared of refugees because they don’t know if they are good or bad people. So I feel like Turkey’s playing a very important role in Middle East. And the problem over there is not the country. It's the current regime.
I believe once the current regime changes—it is going to take some time—but the situation is going to be so much easier to understand in Middle East. But it is just sad to see how he was telling everyone that he’s standing up for secularism, he’s standing up for democracy. And all of a sudden he became this person trying to brainwash people with Islam and trying to use religion to pretty much like brainwash Turkish citizens.
Pletka: And you of course are an observant Muslim, right? You fast during Ramadan, even if you’re playing. So this is not coming from a place of secular disgust with Islamists.
Freedom: I pray five times a day. I fast and I follow what my religion tells me to do. I read the Quran and I try to do everything I can, because I mean, religion is one of the most important things to me. And I think it’s the purpose of my religion, trying to stand up for innocent people and try to bring peace and love into this world.
Thiessen: Finally, when is your contract up? Are you worried that you're going to pay a personal price now for your outspokenness when it comes time to renew your time in the NBA?
Freedom: Well, I have 25 games left in my contract, and it’s up after this season. I have never thought about that because if I did, I just didn't want my contract situation to affect my activism. But recently, obviously, I've been in communication with so many people around the league, and especially my ex-teammates and my existing coaches. They're like, “Listen, man, we love you. So we have to tell you the truth. This is your farewell tour. Enjoy it. Smile. Have fun with it. I hope you win a championship, because I don’t think you are going to get another contract after this year, because the things that you talk about cost them millions of dollars.” NBA’s getting banned in China, the Celtics, and I believe that it is going to affect [things], but this is bigger than myself at the end.
This is bigger than NBA and basketball. If that is the reason that I am not going to be able to play basketball again, then you know what? Oh well. I can look back at least and say I did the right thing.