Every year in Tunisia, high school students across the country undergo "sports exams," a sort of rigorous gym class where they are tested on their knowledge and skills in a variety of athletic contests. The exams are followed by a celebration known as "Dakhla," which features huge football stadium-style banners handmade by the future graduates. The festivities are usually innocuous — except when the Islamic State (IS) and Hitler get involved.
Students at an all-girls high school in Kairouan, a city located about 100 miles south of the capital Tunis, put an image of sword-wielding IS executioner on their banner next to drawings of hostages in orange jumpsuits, some with slit throats. The banner also featured an illustration of a man being engulfed in flames, an apparent reference to the Jordanian fighter pilot who was burnt to death by IS in January 2015.
Two high schools in the northwestern Jendouba Governorate also face scrutiny after students unveiled banners depicting Nazi and IS propaganda. The teens at one school waved the black IS flag next to pictures of militants and messages such as "We only obey God's power," and "Al Qods [Jersualem], here we come." Giant portraits of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were also involved, though it's still unclear why. Students at the other high school adorned their celebratory banner with a huge drawing of Adolf Hitler making the Nazi salute next to a German flag.
A government counter-terrorism unit has reportedly opened an investigation into the three incidents.
Tunisian news site Business News responded by issuing a scathing critique of modern-day education in Tunisia, blaming the incidents on "ignorance" and claiming that the country's young people had been "left to their own devices" by an out-of-touch government. The authors said that instead of "mentoring" young people, the nation had "given up on them long ago."
Sathi Hannachi, the principal of a secondary school in Jendouba, agreed that the education system is to blame for a growing sense of disenfranchisement among Tunisian students. "The quality of education in Tunisia has been going downhill for years," Hannachi told VICE News. "Every year, students perform worse on tests."
The situation "goes back to Ben Ali," Hannachi said, adding that the 2010 revolution that toppled the country's longtime ruler "did not change anything" for Tunisia's young people, who today are faced with a crippling lack of prospects."
Tunisian sociologist Abdessatar Sahbani, head of the Tunisian Social Observatory under the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, agreed that Tunisian students are being failed by an outdated educational system. "Ever since the '50s, very little thought has gone into education reform," Sahbani told VICE News. "The current education system is not adapted to the current context," he said, "which explains the high level of unemployment."
Hannachi explained that the controversial banners do not necessarily reflect an ideological commitment to IS or Nazi views, but rather are a form of provocative "release" in the face of dwindling prospects and marginalization within society. Students are "despairing," he said, and feel defeated by the country's high unemployment rates.
According to Sahbani, there are more than 300,000 unemployed Tunisian graduates, 60 percent of which are women. He said the banners embody a form of "protest, against the social, political, and schools system." The sociologist noted that young people were "the most active group during the revolution," but they were subsequently excluded from politics.
"We need a true education reform," Hannachi said, "one that involves all Tunisians."
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