At a conference on Sunday (March 25th) Mohamed Arkoun, professor of History of Islamic Thought at the Sorbonne in Paris, called on Muslims to re-read the history of their relations with Europe and to develop their academic curricula "to catch up with the march of civilization that passed them by".

Along with Tunisian and Moroccan scholars Hicham Djait and Mohamed Abed Al-Jabri, Algerian Mohamed Arkoun is considered one of the most prominent advocates for modernisation of religious discourse. Their writings are highly controversial in the Islamic world.

Sunday morning's conference was organized by the Tunisian General Labour Union and was attended by both university academics and syndicate leaders. Explaining why he had invited Arkoun to speak at the event, Union Secretary-General Abdulsalam Jarad said, "unionists always endeavour to fortify bridges of dialog and interconnection with intellectuals and innovators in the Maghreb region."

Giving a lecture entitled "Critique of the Relationship between Europe, Islam and the Arab World", Arkoun said that Arabs and Muslims are unable to take part in producing history because "We forsook modernity and…we shut the door on it under the pretext of defending our convictions and our identity."

Arkoun bemoaned the widespread abandonment of modernizing texts and called for universities to open up to teaching and studying the comparative history of theology. "What happened to Ibn Khaldun’s Muqadama? Did the historians read it and did they teach it to their students?" he asked. "I think it was buried like Ibn Rushd was buried."

Arkoun recalled the situation between 632 and 1250 AD, "when Arabic was the language of civilisations,…of reason, of scientific research and of enlightenment…Since the 13th century, Muslims and Arabs have closed themselves off and stayed inside the shell of the past," he added. "[T]hey fell into the trap of ideological Islam, which doesn’t pose questions and is afraid of posing them. Others advanced in Europe and outside of Europe, where philosophical thought did not stop engaging in inquiry and progress."

Speaking on future relations between the Maghreb and European spheres, Arkoun said we must first scientifically assess the past. "Building the European Union is an intellectual-political event on par with the emergence of the age of enlightenment in the 18th century. [B]uilding the European Union means a break with the nation state, [because] they decided to make the entire European region into an open citizenship area."

Arkoun added, "Faced with this intellectual and humanitarian revolution in Europe, we still look at what happened as if it… doesn’t concern us. We didn’t derive any lesson from it."

In conclusion, Arkoun pondered, "We in the Maghreb region must ask ourselves why we failed in building a Maghreb Union."