Not long ago, my son Keaton — one of the world's most devoted Oklahoma City Thunder fans — met center Enes Kanter at a local Arby's. Keaton took a selfie with Kanter and was quoted in an NBA.com feature about Thunder players serving up "acts of kindness":
“There’s something unique about the team and how the guys are committed to the community by getting out there and doing work,” said Keaton Ross, a student at Oklahoma Christian.
I'm only a casual Thunder fan — baseball is my sport — but I'm fascinated with the 25-year-old Kanter, who must boast one of the NBA's top senses of humor. For example, Kanter tweeted this last year after a Thunder beat writer from The Oklahoman left to cover the Golden State Warriors — Kevin Durant's new team — for the San Jose Mercury News:
More recently, though, the Turkish-born center has been making serious national headlines. And even though it may not be clear from news reports, there is a strong religion angle. More on that in a moment.
But first, the crucial background: As a helpful, big-picture Wall Street Journal report notes today, Turkey invalidated the NBA player's passport earlier this month as part of a global arrest strategy:
ISTANBUL — Turkey is expanding efforts abroad to capture opponents by canceling their passports to force foreign governments to send them back, Turkish officials said, describing a strategy that nearly netted an NBA player this month.
The efforts accelerated this spring in what one of the officials said is part of a counterterrorism campaign focused on Turkish followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a critic of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan whose network Turkey classifies as a terrorist group.
Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter told The Wall Street Journal he narrowly escaped a government attempt to force him back to Turkey after his passport was abruptly invalidated during a multination charity tour that included stops at schools affiliated with Mr. Gulen’s movement.
The NBA player, a 25-year-old legal U.S. resident, has been outspoken in his support for Mr. Gulen and criticism of Mr. Erdogan. Mr. Kanter was allowed to return following the intervention of U.S. and NBA officials.
What is Turkey's problem with Gulen? More from the WSJ:
Turkish officials accuse Mr. Gulen of masterminding a failed July coup attempt and consider his religious network a grave national-security threat. Mr. Gulen and his supporters dismiss the accusations as politically motivated and he has denied any role in the coup, saying he rejects violence.
OK, what religious network?
The WSJ does not elaborate, but Thunder fans know that Kanter is a practicing Muslim:
The person responsible for Oklahoma City’s culinary revolution isn’t Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook or any other Thunder starter. It is Enes Kanter, the team’s reserve center, who is Muslim and observes his religion’s dietary laws.
Thunder executives took measures to accommodate Kanter’s religion when they traded for the Turkish-born big man last year and signed him to a long-term extension in the off-season. He has access to his own prayer room in the team’s arena, for example, and uses owner Clay Bennett’s office in the team’s practice center, where he uses towels as prayer rugs. The team also made sure that Kanter’s very first meal in Oklahoma City was cooked under halal standards, which means the meat was raised and slaughtered properly, and Thunder chefs started cooking for him with separate kitchenware.
Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center report from 2010 characterizes the Gulen Movement this way:
The Gülen movement refers to a cluster of religious, educational and social organizations founded and inspired by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic scholar, author and speaker now in his late 60s. The movement strives to give faithful Muslims the secular education they need to thrive in the modern world. At the same time, it also emphasizes the importance of traditional religious teachings. To this end, the movement has inspired the creation of a worldwide network of schools and other centers of learning that focus on secular subjects in the classroom but also offer extracurricular programs that emphasize religious themes.
And Kanter's ties to Gulen? Bloomberg includes this note in a story today:
Enes Kanter is well-known inside Turkey as an alumnus of the schools funded by followers of the exiled cleric, Fethullah Gulen. Kanter's Twitter profile even contains a nod to his religious affiliation — something that may be lost on outside observers but which has become highly politicized in Turkey, where the former Erdogan ally has been rebranded as one of the country's most-wanted terrorists. Gulen's supporters, who run one of the biggest network of charter schools in the U.S. and have a big lobbying apparatus in Washington, portray him as a moderate with no interest in politics.
Kanter offered his own take via The Players' Tribune:
Kanter's case is, of course, part of a complex, international story that involves a U.S. ally and questions of whether secular or Islamist forces will control Turkey.
Amid all those intricacies, religion figures as a crucial factor — both for journalists reporting the story and news consumers seeking to understand it. Maybe a few facts about that would help readers?