Universiteit Leiden

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Maurits Berger: ‘Every researcher should do a social project’

Maurits Berger worked as a lawyer in Amsterdam and as a journalist and researcher in Egypt and Syria. Since 2008, he has been a Professor of Islam in Leiden. Now he finally gets to do what he really wants: bringing his social knowledge and experience with Islam to the academic world. His call to the academic world: ‘Work together with social partners.’

Berger researches the interaction between the West and Islam, in particular the sharia and the West. His publications alternate between academic ones and ones targeting a broader audience. His latest book De Hallalborrel, on the future of Islam in the Netherlands, has recently been published. ‘It was one of the most difficult books to write, because I want anyone to be able to read it. By now I know almost every argument, in this book I try to make them understandable. In a sense I want to offer that to a broader audience that is continuously involved in these arguments and has its worries.’

Need for social impact

Berger likes to combine research with education. But instead of letting the research feed education, he turns it around. He teaches, but also gives advice and workshops to politicians, imams, diplomats, school teachers, policemen, journalists. ‘This gives me so much information, which I can use for my research.’ If every researcher could use this approach, it could certainly contribute to the academic education and research of younger colleagues, Berger believes. ‘I notice that there is a great need for this among them.’ It is a shame it doesn’t happen that often, Berger says.

‘Find a different social partner every five years’

If it were up to Berger, he would instruct every researcher at Leiden University to look for a social partner, every five years, to start a project with. ‘With the library, a nearby mosque, a motorcycle gang; it doesn’t matter. See if you can use your expertise that way. That is your assignment.’

‘Write a children’s novel!’

While you’re at it, he continues, write a children’s novel. ‘At one point in your career, you should write a children’s novel on your research topic.’ In fact, every university should create a book series for children. ‘Not just because It lets us do something fun for society, but also because it will benefit academic research. It forces you to think in a different way.’

He already has an idea: a children’s novel about the prophet Mohammed, or a book about a girl of Moroccan descent and what she goes through. ‘Going on holiday to Morocco, wearing a headscarf, or not, about her cousin suddenly leaving for ISIS. You can incorporate all the major social themes and academic issues in such a story. But in such a way that everyone understands and is touched by it.’


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