While after-dinner school events could arguably be called what’s known in the American Bill of Rights as ”cruel and unusual punishment”, Mona Sahlin managed to get a hall full of students and others to find their way to her evening lecture when she visited Uppsala yesterday (Monday 9/3). The former longtime member of parliament, cabinet minister, and leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party talked about her daily work in her current post as ”national coordinator against violent extremism.”

The post was established in July last year by the former democracy minister Birgitta Ohlsson. Against the backdrop of recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, a number of attacks against mosques in Swedish cities during this year’s first weeks, and an increasing number of Swedes leaving to fight alongside ISIS, the need to get to action has become ever more necessary.

Curbing violent behaviour might seem uncontroversial, but the national coordinator has been met with criticism by some. The association ”Allt åt alla” (in English: everything to everyone) – which is well-known for having conducted ”upper-class safaris”, bus tours to affluent areas for the purpose of increasing class hatred (”odla ditt klasshat”) – have shown dissatisfaction with the attention they have received from the coordinator. Some of their members made us company yesterday and handed out leaflets. The association claims that they doesn’t support violence, to which Sahlin has responded that supporting those who do, counts too – a point she also addressed in Aftonbladet a few days prior to the event.

But battling extremism is not, according to Sahlin, about pointing fingers at those who have committed or support such behaviour, but rather finding ways to counter this worrisome trend. We have to address questions such as: why does a 17-year old who was born and raised in Anegered, in the outskirts of Gothenburg, suddenly pack his bags and, to his parents horror, leaves for the war-torn Syria? His parents later received a phone call just a few weeks later from a stranger who said: “Congratulations, you’re son has gone to paradise.”

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In her current role, many have contacted Sahlin to share their stories of loved ones being drawn to the most violent of movements, including a mother urging Sahlin to lock up her son when he turns 18, old enough get his own passport. Sahlin had to reply that she couldn’t do that. Despite a dearth of clear-cut solutions, it is clear that imams and other local community leaders have more street cred than the political establishment, and helping them combat radicalization will be an integral part of the approach.

Returning jihadists is another topic that has received public attention lately. The question is how we should handle it? Are they to be seen as villains or victims? Mrs Sahlin dismissed the distinction as ”irrelevant.” From our experience of helping right-wing extremists get out of destructive environments – notably through Fryshuset’s program ”Exit” – we have learned that people can get back on the right path. Sahlin is now looking for a copycat project against religious extremism.

In the end, no single countermeasure will be enough to reverse the course of events. Something more than the role of a coordinator is required to really get to the bottom of the issue. ”I applied for such job. I tried to become prime minister”, Sahlin deadpanned. It remains to be seen if her non-Rosenbad career will bear fruit.

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Thank you everyone who joined us, and do not forget to attend our next lecture 

Written By: Pär Nyrén

Images: Andreas Aldin

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