Muslim NBA star Enes Kanter Freedom’s slam dunk for Mideast peace

Basketball star Enes Kanter Freedom believes sports can bring people together * Warns Israel not to trust Turkey, Erdogan.

 Enes Kanter Freedom explores the Southern Wall excavations in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MAAYAN HOFFMAN)
Enes Kanter Freedom explores the Southern Wall excavations in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MAAYAN HOFFMAN)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

“My name is Ahmed and I want to stop world hunger,” said a little boy in a yellow shirt.

Ahmed was sitting in the center of Jerusalem’s YMCA basketball court on a Sunday morning in August, his hands gripping the orange rubber as he spoke. That ball had been tossed to him by one of his heroes: Enes Kanter Freedom, who played in the NBA for more than a decade after being selected third in the 2011 draft.

The child tossed the ball back to Freedom, who threw it to Adam, who called for all the countries to work together. Next, Lina told Freedom she wanted to be a doctor and help heal the world.

“I want children to work toward peace,” she said. 

Freedom sat in a chair at the head of the pack of mini players wearing a black T-shirt adorned with a Muslim hilaal (crescent), a Star of David and a cross. He was smiling, throwing the ball and engaging the youth in a conversation about human rights and making a difference in the world – lessons he would later tell The Jerusalem Report are more important than winning a basketball game or scoring an endorsement. 

 Freedom talks to multi-denominational youth about how to make the world a better place. (credit: SHLOMI YOSEF) Freedom talks to multi-denominational youth about how to make the world a better place. (credit: SHLOMI YOSEF)

The 6’8” (2.032-meter) basketball player was in Israel from July 30 to August 4 to cohost a multi-faith basketball camp with former American-Israeli basketball star Tamir Goodman. He also hosted a day-long basketball clinic in Haifa with Jewish and Arab kids. 

This was not the first multi-faith basketball camp or league to take place in Jerusalem, explained YMCA sports center manager Shaul Elkana. Every year, around 1,000 children from all over Israel – Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druze – play together in the junior NBA league hosted by the YMCA. But it was the first time the children underwent strengthening and conditioning drills while discussing faith-driven values with a superstar like Freedom. 

Freedom said he was in Israel not only to teach basketball, but to make a statement to the younger generation that peace is attainable and human rights paramount

“You can use sports and basketball to bring people together,” Freedom told the Report. “Today, there were Jewish kids, Muslim kids, Israeli and Palestinian kids, playing together and it was so important. We were talking about one thing and that was basketball.”

“Today, there were Jewish kids, Muslim kids, Israeli and Palestinian kids, playing together and it was so important. We were talking about one thing and that was basketball.”

Enes Kanter Freedom

Seeing ‘humanness’

Freedom’s trip was blasted by anti-Israel activists on social media, who called him a “Zionist stooge” and accused him of “helping Israel massacre children.”

But he was not swayed. Freedom said that “the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one of the biggest conflicts out there. Obviously, many people were against me coming here and I am getting so many threats just for being in Israel. But I am here to unite both sides.

“To all the haters out there, I say this: Haters are going to hate. What I care about is educating your kids,” he continued. “Whoever is hating me, I promise you... your kids are going to think better than you do, clearer than you do. And one day, you’ll thank me when there is no more conflict between Muslims and Jews.”

Freedom said that when he looks at a person, he does not see their religion or color, but their “humanness.” He believes he is not alone in his views, but that too much time is spent talking about unity and not enough actually building it. 

“We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work for our kids so that when they become our age, they won’t face the same problems we are facing now,” he told the Report.

Freedom’s trip included visits to the country’s holy sites, including a tour of the Old City on Friday with the Report, and a visit to the Temple Mount on Sunday morning. He dressed in T-shirts bearing messages of “shalom/peace/salaam” and “pro-peace, anti-war.” Freedom stopped to record videos at the most meaningful sites, sharing them with his more than 775,000 Twitter followers. 

“A salamu alaykum from Al-Aqsa and Qubbat As-Sakhrah to all my Muslim brothers and sisters around the world,” Freedom wrote on Twitter above one of his videos. “May Allah bring inner peace, spiritual awakening, health, prosperity, love, joy and happiness. May the lessons of solidarity, mercy and compassion be an inspiration to all of us.”

He told the Report he experienced a “spiritual awakening” on the Temple Mount, that the Western Wall was “very emotional” and the Old City in general was “one of the holiest places on Earth.” When Freedom learned that Jews and Christians cannot pray on the Temple Mount, he said he hoped that one day that would change. 

“Yes, as a practicing Muslim, I came to this Holy Land and stood in front of the Western Wall and prayed for all of humankind,” Freedom tweeted. “Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Druze, Israelis and Palestinians. I prayed for unity, love, peace, health, compassion and mercy for everyone out there.”

At the Western Wall, he joined members of a hassidic quorum who had been praying there for several hours. The rabbi could tell that Freedom was not a traditional visitor.

“I explained that Enes is one of the righteous gentiles and briefly shared his story,” Rabbi Ari Lamm, head of the Bnai Zion nonprofit who helped fund Freedom’s trip told the Report. “The rabbi started crying and said, ‘I never thought I would see something like this.’”

Making Jerusalem tour ‘transformative’

Lamm and his team were filming a docu-series on Freedom’s Israel trip as part of its SoulShop project, which produces and distributes content rooted in faith, explained SoulShop COO Gabi Weinberg. Its aim is to amplify the voices of those at the forefront of culture who are also deeply tied to their religion. 

The program has two aspects: On the one hand, anyone can upload their faith–driven creative content through the SoulShop website or via a direct message on TikTok or Instagram and, if approved, SoulShop will help get it out there. On the other hand, the team is working with top influencers with millions of followers to post faith–based content and inspire the next generation.

 Freedom addresses his Christian followers from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. (credit: MAAYAN HOFFMAN) Freedom addresses his Christian followers from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. (credit: MAAYAN HOFFMAN)

Warns Israel of ‘back-stabbing’ Erdoğan

Freedom’s story began when he was a young boy growing up in Turkey, during what he described as a “tough time politically for my country.”

One day, he went downstairs and his friends were burning American and Israeli flags in his front yard, telling him to hate the Jewish people and that the American people were evil.  

“I got so scared. I immediately ran up to my mother and asked her what to do,” Freedom recalled. “My mom said, ‘I am not going to tell you what to do, but I will tell you this: ‘Do not hate anyone before you meet them.’ So, I made a promise to my mom that day.”

Nine years later, at the age of 17, Freedom came to America to play in the NBA. He said he was nervous to meet American people, and he almost left before he even got started. But then he remembered the promise he made to his mom.

“The Americans made me feel comfortable from day one,” he told the Report. “They opened their arms and gave me a warm welcome. They took me to a mosque and somewhere to get halal food and really showed me that I could play basketball and practice my culture and religion freely in the States.”

When he met a Jewish friend for the first time, she invited him for Shabbat dinner and he said the food was similar to what he was used to at home, as well as the Hebrew songs and some of the traditional Jewish dances. 

Freedom cannot return to Turkey and he has not spoken to his family for nine years

The country has 11 arrest warrants against him. His picture is hung in Turkey-friendly countries around the world, where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called for his extradition.

The crime, according to Freedom, is speaking out against the president and for democracy.

“I want freedom of speech, religion, expression and protest,” he told the Report. “Because of the things I talk about, I am considered an enemy of the state.”

Freedom is a follower of Fethullah Gülen, whom Erdoğan accused of plotting to overthrow him in 2016; Gülen himself is living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. 

Although Gülen rarely interviews or speaks publicly, he has inspired a movement with followers in 140 countries and six continents called Hizmet – a faith–based Sunni Islamic society that opposes violence or mixing religion and politics. 

“My father was a scientist, and he got fired from his job” because of Freedom, the player told the Report. “My sister went to medical school for six years and still cannot find a job. My little brother was playing basketball and he got kicked off of every team. 

“It was hurting them so much that they had to put a statement out that said, ‘We are disowning Enes.’ But the Turkish government did not believe them, so they sent the police to my house and took all their electronics away – phones, computers, laptops – to see if I was still in contact with my family. They could not find any evidence, but they took my dad to jail anyway.”

Only after America put pressure on Turkey did they release Freedom’s father. But they revoked Freedom’s passport and labeled his family’s so that they cannot leave the country. 

Freedom became an American citizen at the end of 2021 and now travels on his American passport. 

Just weeks before Israel announced that it would resume full diplomatic relations with Turkey and return ambassadors and consuls-general to each other’s countries, Freedom warned that Israel should not trust Erdogan..

“You cannot play a friendly game with dictators and the Israeli government definitely needs to watch out for Erdogan, because as soon as you turn your back, he is going to back-stab you,” Freedom said.

“You cannot play a friendly game with dictators and the Israeli government definitely needs to watch out for Erdogan, because as soon as you turn your back, he is going to back-stab you.”

Enes Kanter Freedom

The basketball star has also been outspoken about human rights violations outside his own country, especially in China and by its president Xi Jinping. In 2021, he played several basketball games wearing shoes that said “Free China,” including ones that had a design of Freedom tightly squeezing a severed Winnie the Pooh head like a basketball. His choice of footwear cost him his NBA contract. 

“The league is too intimidated by China as this is a multi-billion-dollar industry,” he said, noting that more people in China watched NBA games last year than the total US population.

Freedom remains in shape and said he could have easily played another five years. However, he cannot get a contract in the US, due in part to his political involvement. The Euro League is not an option, because Turkish Airlines is a sponsor. Instead, he set up a foundation and is focused on that. 

“Some of the things I took on myself come with some kinds of sacrifices,” he said. “What I am doing is educating millions of kids who think the other side is evil or who don’t know about human rights. This is bigger than myself, bigger than any money or NBA contract or endorsement I am going to get.”

He said he has a message for democratic leaders: Start taking action, too.

“Look at Turkey, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, China, North Korea. These dictators affect their whole regions and the whole world. Yes, billions of dollars may be at stake, but that does not mean that human rights should be the last priority. Human rights should be the first priority in every situation.”

‘First step’ to peace

Freedom’s words are lofty, but he truly believes what he says. 

Those who spent time with him over his five days in Israel described Freedom as modest and humble. Everywhere he went, partially because of his height and partially because of his work as an activist, people flocked to him to shake his hand, thank him and ask him for a picture.

“I did not hear him say no once,” said Bnai Zion COO Justin Hayet. “And he always said yes with a smile and gratitude. He was so happy to be here and feel the love of the Israeli and Jewish people.” 

His trip included a meeting with Russian-Israeli hero Natan Sharansky, which Freedom said was “so powerful” for him because he had met another human rights activist who sacrificed so much but eventually won and even thrived. 

On Friday, he visited the Southern Wall excavations and learned from Lamm about the destruction of Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago. 

“It took 2,000 years for Jews to return,” Lamm told Freedom. “It is here that you see the contrast between destruction and what was rebuilt. So, if you ever question whether or not you can change the world, the proof is right here.”

Freedom told the Report that he believes there is going to be peace in the Middle East one day. “It starts with me, it starts with you,” he said.

That Sunday, as Freedom walked away from the basketball court, his skin was dry – he’d barely broken a sweat. True, the physical activity was minimal. But the emotional workout was intense. 

“Politics is always a big mess,” he admitted with a sigh. “I feel like if we can raise our young generation the right way, we are going to have a better and brighter and more peaceful future.”

As Jewish, Christian and Muslim children continued with their daily drills, the sounds of the basketballs bouncing echoed off the gym floor. 

“When was the last time a Muslim person arrived here to promote peace and unity?” Freedom asked. “I have taken this first step.” 

Enes Kanter Freedom will be speaking at the Jerusalem Post Annual Conference. Learn more.