Can Europe Make It?

Civil disobedience is not the same as violent extremism

Several leading Swedish academics published a protest in a major daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter this March, regarding Swedish Government plans for preventing extremism.

Anne Kaun
23 May 2015
Upperclass vs underclass Safari in Stockholm.

Upperclass vs underclass Safari in Stockholm.Feb 2012.A new action plan against extremism by the government wrongly suggests that a number of extra-parliamentary movements are prone to violence. In doing so, its guidelines risk having a negative influence on young people’s trust in democratic engagement. Civil disobedience is not the same as violent extremism, fifteen leading academics say (see below for the signatories).

In two commentaries published in Dagens Nyheter some of the signatories criticized the most recent government report on violent activism. Their criticism addressed among other things suggestions that teachers and educators should be transformed into officers policing opinion. This, they say, risks undermining young people’s belief in democracy, by placing a question mark next to the most fundamental democratic rights in Sweden.

Now that the report has been translated into practical guidelines, published online and inviting discussion, we can confirm that the fears raised by these critics are fully realised. Parts of the instructions that the Swedish state is sending to teachers, educators and other citizens who are in touch with young people seem flagrantly hostile to democracy. The guidelines addressing everybody working with or otherwise in contact with young people are published as part of the Government’s national action plan for protecting democracy against violent extremism, initiated by the previous minister for democracy Birgitta Olsson and now directed by Mona Sahlin. The material is meant to help unveil signs of violent extremism among young people (even before any violent actions are executed), but also as a tool to develop different responses.

Major problems emerge in the definitions and concrete examples given. Various political groups are identified as violent. However, the short descriptions used to identify groups are also offered as ways to guide the reader in being able to identify similar, other groups besides the one sidentified. The most obvious problem emerges when the category of “violent leftist extremism” is defined. The material points at the Revolutionary Front (Revolutionära Fronten) and Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) as capable of violent behaviour as confirmed by direct quotes from the activists. However, the organization Everything for Everybody (Allt åt Alla) and the Swedish Anarcho-syndicalist Youth Federation (Syndikalistiska ungdomsförbundet, SUF) are mentioned in the same breath although without any substantiating evidence. Everything for Everybody is mainly known for their direct action called Upper-Class-Safari in Stockholm, but they are not known for any violent activities.

In a debate with Mona Sahlin, Aftonbladet ( a leading evening newspaper) explained that the only confirmation that the group supports violent actions is their expressed solidarity for Kurdish troops defending themselves against IS. How did they end up on Mona Sahlin’s list? Probably because they – like SUF – advocate direct action, which is considered an indicator for violence in these government guidelines.

Instead of drawing mainly on sources from the Swedish Secret Service (Säkerhetspolisen Säpo), the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brottsförebyggande rådet BRÅ) and journalists focusing on “extremism”, the authors should have considered some mainstream Swedish democracy and social movement research. There they would have learned that direct action is a rather usual term for a number of different extra-parliamentary political actions not to be equalized with anti-parliamentarian actions. It is even used for activities of groups that have an explicitly non-violent approach. Examples that come under this heading are completely legal activities such as Everything for Everybody bus trips but also illegal activities such as peaceful occupations of empty houses or the hiding of refugees. As an active supporter of civil disobedience during her time as chairwoman of the Liberals Youth Organization Birgitta Olsson could have ended up on the list of government prohibitions and a candidate for its surveillance measures. 

Direct action in the form of civil disobedience is based on openness. It is a symbolic action that points out injustices or oppression with the goal of starting a debate and changing society in the long-run. These kinds of activities have been an important element not only in fighting dictatorships. Western democracies as they are today have partly been built on movements that employed direct action in order to broaden democracy and participation, for example - the labour, feminist, civil rights, LGBTQ and environmental movements.

It is against that background that leading political philosophers like John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas have always considered civil disobedience a necessary element of a vibrant democracy, an analysis that was confirmed by the concluding remarks of the Swedish Democracy Report from 2000 (only one member of the liberals (Folkpartiet) disagreed). It is important to quote these insightful words: “There has to be an acceptance for these groups, their engagement has to be taken seriously. We should not confuse enemies of democracy with its critics.”

Direct actions have historically been small steps towards a broader democratic space. By categorizing organizations and movements that employ direct action as (potentially) violent, the Swedish government is taking a big step in the other direction.

Kristina Boréus, Professor in Political Science, Stockholm University,

Joakim Ekman, Professor in Political Science, Södertörn University,

Mattias Gardell, Professor in Religion, Uppsala University,

Håkan Gustafsson, Professor in Law, Karlstads University,

Björn Horgby, Professor in History, Örebro University,

Carina Listerborn, Professor in Urban Studies, Malmö University,

Heléne Lööw, Associate Professor in History, Uppsala University,

Irene Molina, Professor in Cultural Geography, Uppsala University,

Diana Mulinari, Professor in Gender Studies, Lund University,

Nora Räthzel, Professor in Sociology, Umeå University,

Adrienne Sörbom, Associate Professor in Sociology, Södertörn University,

Håkan Thörn, Professor in Sociology, Göteborg University,

Stellan Vinthagen, Professor in Civil Resistance, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Mattias Wahlström, PhD in Sociology, Göteborg University,

Aleksandra Ålund, Professor in Ethnicity, Linköping University

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