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Free Enes! Sports and a Muslim Ban


Alas, Enes, what could have been…

While there’s no such creature as a “rebuilding year” under Coach Cal, the 2010-2011 squad — sandwiched in between the Wall/Cousins wizardry and the Davis/Kidd-Gilchrist majesty — wasn’t supposed to win it all.  Yet despite never cracking the regular season Top Ten; with Knight directing and Jorts clogging the lanes, the overachievers reached the Final Four, only to lose in a one-point heart-break at the hands of the Huskies of UConn.

While it’s impossible to prove cause and effect, the NCAA’s disqualification of superstar UK recruit Enes Kanter (under circumstances suspiciously shady) may have been the deciding factor.  It’s no wonder that the Big Blue Nation became so engaged and enraged by the NCAA action: A “Free Enes” campaign grew organically from grassroots, with the Turkish teenager emerging as a local folk hero despite never being able to officially don Kentucky blue and white.

Ironically, while many fans might not have realized it, our overwhelming Christian commonwealth united with emotion, energy and passion…behind a Muslim.

Not mind you, a more familiar American convert such as Louisville’s Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, but an honest-to-goodness, olive-skinned, Middle-Eastern Muslim, whose family hailed from Ercis, Turkey, just a few miles from the Syrian border, Ground Zero of our global refugee crisis. Indeed, Kanter is a proud, devout and observant follower of Islam — the Oklahoma City Thunder recently prepared a prayer room in their arena for him — who is deeply engaged in his religion, as well as in promoting interfaith dialogue and community-focused service.

Had Kanter led the Cats to our coveted eighth national championship a year early, one can only imagine the celebration of the person, his background and his culture.

Of course, had Donald Trump been President at the time, and had he enacted his recent pronouncement to affect “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” the “Free Enes” movement could have been snuffed out before it started. Kanter’s NBA career could have been vanquished as well.

Wildcats fans further can be fortunate that such a policy was not in place when the father of Chicago-born Nazr Mohammed immigrated to the U.S. from Ghana.  The faithful Muslim seven-footer — who was known to lose weight during NBA postseasons that coincided with his fasting for Ramadan — might have never helped lead the Cats to our 1996 and 1998 championships.  (Nor, of course, missed all those free throws in the 1997 title game…)

Consider as well the potential impact on today’s team. While much of the debate about Trump’s proposal has focused on its fairness, constitutionality, impact on global terrorism and reflection of American values, its actual enforcement would raise a series of other troubling tribulations. If a jihadist intended to immigrate in order to terrorize Americans, surely he would lie about his affinity for Islam when questioned by customs.  Accordingly, U.S. officials would need to profile potential Allah-worshippers.  So foreigners with Arabic first names — like Canadian Jamal Murray, for example — could face serious scrutiny.

I’m the first to concede that the fears underlying Trump’s radical proposal are rooted in legitimate concerns about public safety.  And the horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino over the past several weeks — as well as the not-too-distant 9/11 tragedy — were all the work of self-identifying Muslims citing their holy books for inspiration.   No doubt, when certain passages of the Koran are read literally, some pretty abominable action seems authorized:  Islamic law imposes death sentences for adulterers, gays, female promiscuity, cursing one’s parents, stubborn and rebellious youth, and working on the Sabbath; slavery is encouraged; and terroristic genocide is ordered against other faiths.

Oops, those are the edicts of the Bible’s Old Testament. (Don’t believe me?  Click the links above.)

Now, in defense of Christianity and Judaism, the New Testament, the Talmud, and centuries of modern teachings have softened the rough edges of the Hebrew Bible.  And it’s the exceptional case when a Christian or Jew today cites holy verses for abhorrent behavior:  Planned Parenthood killer Robert Dear and Yitzhak Rabin assassin Ygal Amir are rare exceptions.

But while there are many more examples of Muslims murdering in their god’s name (predominantly killing other Muslims), the vast, vast supermajority simply want to live in peace.  Muslims like Enes and Nazr, Ali and Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neill, Hakeem Alajuwon, Aquib Talib — and don’t forget Morehead State’s pride and joy, Kenneth Faried — are not only productive members of American society; they have brought joy and honor and excitement to those of us who love sports.

So as we engage in a healthy and important debate over homeland security, we must understand that a blanket ban of members of one faith not only strikes at the very heart of our nation’s founding principles, it would undermine a significant element of our culture that so many of us cherish.

As I’ve opined in this space often, sports has produced a profoundly harmonizing effect on American culture, especially here in Kentucky.  Certainly on the most contentious domestic controversy of modern times — race relations — Kentucky basketball has served as an essential healing force: Having new generations grow up in the Bluegrass with heroes of a different skin color has done far more than any politician to advance Dr. King’s dream of a colorblind society.

The same can — and should — be true with the complicated and challenging issue of faith.  Understanding that our sports heroes may legitimately worship a different god, and still serve as our role models and heroes, could help us reject the demagogues who wish to divide us, and could help restore our country as a true light among all the nations.

Article written by Jonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller, The Recovering Politician (Twitter: @RecoveringPol), writes about the politics of sport and the sport of politics...and sometimes about bourbon. Jonathan has been elected twice as Kentucky's State Treasurer; practices as a crisis management attorney; authored three books on faith, public policy and crisis management; serves as a Contributor to The Daily Beast, played straight man on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; reached the final table of the World Series of Poker; and with his summer camp sweetheart, raised two remarkable twenty-something daughters.