Diaspora Turks are the new darlings of the American right

Enes Kanter and Mehmet Oz have successful careers but are flawed characters who appear to have abused public trust

Boston Celtics centre Enes Kanter has become an American citizen. Reuters

Two Muslim Americans stepped into the spotlight last week, one the Islamist counter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the other a pandemic-era twist on former US president Donald Trump.

The first is Turkish basketballer Enes Kanter, who plays for the NBA's Boston Celtics and has for years leveraged his platform as a professional athlete to denounce his home country's government.

Kanter, 29, underwent a transformation last week, becoming a US citizen and officially changing his surname to "Freedom". He was roundly mocked on social media, with some wondering if the basketballer-activist were a creation of Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian behind Borat.

Kanter's backstory has echoes of parody. He is a prominent member of the movement led by exiled Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for the failed 2016 coup that nearly toppled the government and views as a threat to national security. A few weeks after the coup – the night of which he spent at Gulen's Pennsylvania compound – Kanter vowed to change his name to Gulen, saying he would be willing to die for the Islamist leader and his movement.

As many as 100,000 Gulenists fled Turkey after the government labelled the movement a terror group and embarked on a series of purges. Many found a new calling in the West, launching news outlets and rights initiatives – including the Stockholm Centre for Freedom, Human Rights Defenders and the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network, to name a few – to highlight abuses in Turkey.

Kanter rode this wave to become a political power player. He now pens op-eds for The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal, and champions people facing oppression to nearly 1.5 million followers on social media. He pals around with senators, mayors and ambassadors, and even helps introduce new legislation.

But the evidence suggests Gulenists were indeed among those who led the failed coup, which bombed the Turkish Parliament and killed more than 300 people. What's more, the movement was for more than a decade aligned with Turkey's ruling AKP and often enabled the latter's assault on political foes. From 2006 to 2012, for instance, Gulenist judges and prosecutors are widely thought to have manufactured evidence and rubber-stamped questionable charges in lengthy trials that ended military tutelage, consolidating AKP power.

Turkey's purges and alleged abuses against Gulenists are troubling and worthy of investigation. And one of the reasons Kanter has received such a warm welcome in Washington is many US officials share his distaste for Turkey's current leader. Yet, those officials would also be wise to question the human rights advocacy of a man aligned with a movement that for years endeavoured to erode the integrity of Turkey's democratic institutions. Advocating for freedom is an understandable response to persecution – Turkey has issued 10 arrest warrants against Kanter – but it should not erase a history of support for past crimes.

On the day Kanter changed his name, his fellow Turkish-American Dr Mehmet Oz, a prominent surgeon and television personality, launched his campaign for a US Senate seat in, of all states, Mr Gulen's adopted home state of Pennsylvania.

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – Feb 24 , 2016 : Dr . Mehmet C . Oz , Host of ‘ The Dr . Oz Show ’ and Vice - Chair and Professor of Surgery at Columbia University , USA speaking during the session ‘ 80 Is The New 50 ’ on the second day of Global Women ’ s Forum Dubai held at Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai.  ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For News. Story by Dana Moukhallati. ID no : 82603
 *** Local Caption ***  PS2402- WOMENS FORUM06.jpg

Vowing to "reignite our divine spark [and] bravely fight for freedom", the 61-year-old Dr Oz stepped into the Republican vacuum left by the withdrawal of the Trump-endorsed candidate who halted his campaign amid accusations of domestic abuse. Conservatives are now vying for the approval of the party's figurehead, and Dr Oz, with his wealth and celebrity, would seem to have a leg up.

Dr Oz would, of course, be following in the footsteps of Mr Trump, who rode reality TV stardom to political power. Mr Trump appeared on Dr Oz's show in 2016 and later named him to a White House advisory council on sports and nutrition. Dr Oz's medical achievements are indeed impressive. Born in Cleveland to Turkish immigrants, he spent several childhood summers in Turkey and later served his mandatory stint with the Turkish army. The son of a Konya-born surgeon, Dr Oz graduated from Ivy League schools, invented a heart device that has saved many lives and has served for decades as a professor and lead surgeon at Columbia University medical centre. His "Dr Oz Show" has won two Emmys and he is regularly named among the US's most influential people.

But his critics see him as something of a quack. A 2014 study in the British Medical Journal, for instance, found only one third of the recommendations Dr Oz made on his show – where he has asserted that genetically modified foods cause cancer, apple juice contains deadly arsenic and raspberry ketones are a miracle weight-loss tool – were based on solid evidence. The next year, a group of doctors wrote a letter urging Columbia to reconsider Dr Oz's employment because he promoted "quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain".

Embroidered images in a shop in Gaziantep of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. AFP

As the pandemic took hold in early 2020, Dr Oz advised Americans to treat Covid-19 with hydroxychloroquine, which most doctors advised against due to inadequate testing. He also called for the re-opening of schools, describing the likely 2-3 per cent increase in mortality as an acceptable trade-off. The comment prompted a backlash and Dr Oz quickly apologised.

Yet, in his statement announcing his candidacy, he took a rather Trumpian tone, arguing that the government and elites had mishandled the pandemic. "The arrogant, closed-minded people in charge closed our parks, shuttered our schools, shut down our businesses, and took away our freedom," Dr Oz wrote.

Few are happy about being stuck at home as the fourth, fifth or sixth wave takes hold and the Omicron variant shoots around the globe. But the alternative – restoring full freedoms, flinging open schools, restaurants, offices and retail outlets in areas where many are still contracting the virus – is wilful ignorance that would surely lead to much preventable death.

Such a stance, moreover, also seems to go against the guidelines Dr Oz lays out in his latest pre-flight video for Turkish Airlines, in which he wears a mask and details how to limit passenger contact.

Kanter has also shown a willingness to embrace right-wing views. Last week, he appeared on Fox News, where top conservative host Tucker Carlson asked him whether some Americans showed inadequate appreciation of their country's advantages. "I feel like they should just, please, keep their mouth shut and stop criticising the greatest nation in the world and they should focus on their freedoms," Kanter said.

So Mr Freedom urges activists to shut up, while Dr Oz offers advice that puts lives at risk. I would hesitate to call either of them frauds, as both have the requisite bona fides: Kanter has faced persecution and Dr Oz's medical achievements are undeniable.

Yet, both appear to have abused the public's trust. Still, one might argue that in contradicting their public personas – the freedom fighter who curbs the freedoms of others; the doctor who imperils public health – they could hardly be more human, or more fitting for these topsy-turvy times.

Published: December 6th 2021, 2:00 PM
David Lepeska

David Lepeska

David Lepeska, a veteran journalist who has reported widely across the region and contributed to top outlets including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic, is the Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National