On Tuesday March 25th around fifty students from the Globala Gymnasiet school on Södermalm in Stockholm blocked the entrance to their school to prevent a representative of the Sweden Democrats’ youth division (SDU) from taking part in a political debate at their school. Since then, these students have been called undemocratic by many of the nations’ media.
In an editorial in one of Sweden’s leading newspapers, Dagens Nyheter, Susanna Birgersson even writes that ”the only hopeful element was that 550 students did not participate in the blockade”. She sees the students as immature children obstructing the democratic process.
I believe the students were doing the exact opposite. They were mature citizens voicing their legitimate concerns and protesting in the face of a real and imminent threat to our democracy. Here are three reasons why Birgersson is wrong and why Sweden should be proud of these young people.
In her piece, Birgersson argues that SD is not an anti-democratic party since it operates within the democratic system and the party does not propagate violence or revolution. This is a fundamental flaw in the definition of ”anti-democratic parties”.
Whether a party is anti-democratic should not be judged by its methods, operations and guidelines but by its goals, actions and intentions. If we hold equality and religious freedom as important democratic values, one cannot avoid the conclusion that the SD is an anti-democratic party, even if it operates within the boundaries of our democratic playing field.
The second argument is that ”if we start closing doors for one party, what legitimacy do we have as a democracy and how can we be sure we do not start closing the doors for others”.
This argument is a naive misjudgement of the corruptive powers of anti-democratic forces. Germany – with its experience dealing with this matter – has formulated the answer to this argument in the concept of Streitbare demokratie.
A democracy that can defend itself against corrupting influences from within. This includes clear restrictions on the freedom of speech (for example you may not deny the Holocaust) and the fact that a number of articles of the constitution are made ’untouchable’. They cannot be amended, not even by qualified majority or unanimity in the parliament.
Germany has experienced first hand the danger of being naive and has therefore armoured its fundamental democratic values and principles against the corrosive influence of anti-democratic parties functioning within the system.
The third argument is that the students, by blocking the entrance, made it impossible for SDU to play its part in the democratic system. The propagators of this argument confuse two fundamentally different areas and players in the political debate: politicians and civil society.
I strongly believe that every politician has a fundamental moral obligation to enter into the debate with extreme-right parties. I do not believe in a cordon sanitaire, which allows the SD(U) to play the victim role. These parties should always be exposed for what they are, which is parties without solutions. And for that, political debate is necessary.
But these were not politicians, these were students. And as students they have a different role to play in our societal debate. And by blocking the entrance to their own school the students spoke out.
They did not say that SD(U) should not be allowed to play its role in parliament and they were not trying to limit SD(U)’s democratic rights such as the right to free speech. What the students said was: ”Not here! We will not allow you to use our house, where we feel safe and secure, as a platform for your message of hate and polarization.”
That behaviour is not anti-democratic; that is active citizen participation. That is the core of our democracy!
Was it effective? I don’t know. Were there other methods the students could have used? Undoubtedly. Do I believe in tackling the debate head on? Absolutely!
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But I also believe in the power of young people standing up for what they believe in. It is from these students that we must take heart. The rhetoric of the extreme right is one that escalates by nature.
If no one draws a line in the sand, our society will gradually become accustomed and numb, accepting xenophobia and racism as an inevitable part of our daily reality. But the students at Globala Gymnasiet showed us there is still time to turn the tide.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: ”He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” The students did not cooperate and I for one am proud of them.
Ruben Brunsveld (Twitter: @RubenBrunsveld)