Damascus, Syria. Summer 2010.
"Why do Americans hate Islam?" a young Syrian girl asked Anna Van Hollen '12.
"In the background, the Umayyad Mosque muezzin begins his call to prayer," Van Hollen wrote later in an essay. "I want to reassure this girl that not all Americans believe her religion is evil, but I fear that such a simple answer risks further misunderstanding."
The essay was part of Van Hollen's winning application for the prestigious W. Thomas Smith Scholarship at Davidson College. Established by Tom Smith, a 1948 alumnus from Greenville, S.C., the scholarship is awarded annually to one exceptional senior at Davidson who demonstrates outstanding academic achievement, leadership, and commitment to community service. The award provides for study at a major university outside of the United States.
The exchange with the young Syrian girl is emblematic of Van Hollen's approach to Middle Eastern politics.
"I'm drawn in by the complexity of it," Van Hollen said. "In a region as tumultuous as the Middle East, it is easy to get wrapped up in following and analyzing the latest crisis." However, she believes that taking the time to dip below the surface and explore the complexities of the region sheds important light on current events. "For example, you read every day about rifts between Sunni and Shia sects in modern Iraq or Syria, but to really understand these conflicts you have to go back all the way to 680. With this historical context, day-to-day events make a little more sense."
Van Hollen will use her Smith Scholarship to study for a year at the London School of Economics, where she will complete a one-year program for an M.Sc. in International Relations History and Theory, a joint degree between the International History Department and the International Relations Department. For her dissertation, she plans to examine the role of pluralism and political tolerance in a specific historical context in the Muslim world, hoping to gain insight on the oft-debated relationship between Islam and democracy.
Van Hollen's global awareness and sense of social justice issues began early and grew fast.
Growing up, she traveled to Greece to visit her grandmother's side of the family, to Turkey, and to England. Global perspectives were at work closer to home, too. Her father serves as U.S. Congressman for Maryland's 8th District and her mother works at Amideast, an organization that teaches English and provides SAT preparation to Middle Eastern students.
At 12, Van Hollen attended a Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama, returning there later for a journalism program examining how cultural backgrounds shape approaches to storytelling. Her experience as the only white student in the group eventually led her to work in high school for her local NPR affiliate as a Youth Voices reporter, where she produced a feature on self-segregation in local schools.
She entered Davidson as a recipient of the John Montgomery Belk Scholarship, Davidson's premier comprehensive merit scholarship. Around the same time, election discussions of presidential candidate Barack Obama's ethnic and religious heritage piqued her interest in the Muslim faith, leading her to enroll in Professor Jonathan Berkey's survey course on early Islamic Civilization. Her interest grew, and that summer, she worked as an intern with the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C.
"I was inspired by efforts to reclaim tolerant interpretations of the Qur'an and frustrated by the narrow stereotyping of Islam in the West," Van Hollen wrote in her essay.
At Davidson she has studied history and Arabic, and travelled to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and the West Bank in the process.
She most recently travelled to the West Bank to complete an independent reporting project for the Pulitzer Center for International Crisis Reporting, a trip made possible by funding from Davidson's Dean Rusk International Studies Program and the Pulitzer Center. While on the ground, Van Hollen reported on issues facing the "next generation" of Palestinians. One of these stories, "The Green Intifada: How Palestinians Resist Occupation by Planting Trees," was picked up and published recently by the Atlantic Online.
Van Hollen also has spent a semester at the London School of Oriental and African Studies; worked as a National Security beat reporter for Washington D.C.'s National Journal; travelled to Jerusalem, Oxford, and London to conduct research for her honors history thesis about British radio broadcasting in Mandate Palestine in the 1940s; and along the way achieved a proficiency in Arabic language.
"Arabic is not easy," she admits. "It's a lot more specific than English in some ways. It has a word specifically for 'camel with one working nostril.' There's also a much larger gap between standard Arabic and Arab dialects, even including different conjugations for various colloquial forms of the language."
At the end of her senior year, Van Hollen has already begun to take a longer view of the liberal arts experience at Davidson, and how it complements her chosen areas of study.
"The Middle East is great if you are interested in interdisciplinary work," she says. "In order to understand this region, I have taken courses in history, politics, religion, and language - and tried to consider the interplay between them." She notes that the Middle East is the birthplace of many great civilizations and three major world religions, and that its rich cultural history extends from ancient times all the way through British imperialism and into the current climate of globalization and media attention.
The future? Law school, journalism, public policy, foreign affairs are all on the table, as well as a dream of someday opening a literary coffee shop called "The Table of Contents." Maybe even a Ph.D. in history as a result of the fun she's had doing her honors thesis work and encouragement from professors Berkey, Scott Denham, and Chris Alexander.
"I think I function best overcommitted, and I enjoy it, but next year is a time to take a breath and synthesize everything I've learned over the past four years - and not have to be on caffeine all the time!" Van Hollen said.
And, as her essay concludes, to continue bridging the gap between what she knows and what she doesn't know.
"Eighteen months ago I stood in the shadow of the Umayyad Mosque struck by the stark contrast between the scene before me and the sensationalist debate over the 'Ground Zero' mosque raging at home," Van Hollen wrote of the moments after her encounter with the young Syrian girl. "At the London School of Economics, I will gain expertise and experience that will help guide me as I try to find the best way to advance my commitment to work as a professional to help bridge that gap."