Images of Islam:
Exemplification as Elegance in the Post-9/11 Works
of Thomas Friedman
Graduate Student, Ohio University School of Journalism
15 N. Congress St.
Athens, OH 45701
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April 1, 2003
Images of Islam
Images of Islam:
Exemplification as Elegance in the Post-9/11 Works
of Thomas Friedman
There is therefore in perception the charm of an infinity of images . . .
On March 26, six days after the war in Iraq began, Thomas Friedman's
Searching for the Roots of 9/11 aired on the Discovery channel. One of the
most remarkable things about this documentary was its varied portraits of
Muslims expressing opinions and giving voice to emotions elicited by the
September 11 attack on New York's Twin Towers and the Pentagon, as well as
by the general plight of the Arab peoples and the troubled relationship
between America and the Arab world. Of the many penetrating interviews and
profiles, three Muslims in particular linger in one's memory: Dyab Abou
Jahjah, a young political leader in Belgium; Ali Salem, a playwright in
Cairo; and Wisam Rochalina, an eighteen-year-old female boarding-school
student in Jakarta. The power of these images—their faces, garb, words,
and gestures—haunts us at least in part because of the urgency of
Friedman's mission, but also, undeniably, because of their vivid nature and
Each speaks in slightly broken English, simply and compellingly. Says
Dyab, whose youthful face bears an incongruously cool, detached
expression: "We all wanted to forget these scenes—we didn't want to see
people jumping out of windows. . . . That was very, very disturbing. We
kind of wanted to focus on the fact that America got a punch in the
nose." And Wisam, her bright eyes full of hope: "America is like on the
top of the world right now. So if I go to the best universities, then I
will get the best education." And Salem, speaking with extreme care and
deliberation: "We are partners in the future of this planet, of this
village. We have to teach these people that to our family on this one
planet, there is no he and she and you and me. There is we. . . . We have
to live with others. We can't live alone—we can't . . ."
These are the final words of the film—and the viewer is left with a sense
not only of Friedman's anger and bewilderment, but of his compassion and
his desire to understand. Mostly, though, we are left with a sense of the
complex and varied nature of the Muslim worldview.
These same individuals appear in Thomas Friedman's op-ed columns published
in the New York Times since 9/11, among many other figures from the Arab
world whom Friedman variously describes as friends, acquaintances,
professionals, authorities, leaders, and outlaws. The force of their
presence, in both the documentary and the writings of this three-time
Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist, is undeniable. Friedman's works since
9/11 speak volumes about the Arab world and our relationship to it and very
probably come closer than any other single source to probing the complex
heart of the causes that led to the attack. Although others have argued
that the New York Times' portrayal of the Islamic world since 9/11 has been
slanted (e.g., Brennen and Duffy 2003), and though many consider Friedman's
stance on the Iraqi war controversial (he has long endorsed the war, with
allied support), his columns nevertheless exhibit a deep understanding of,
and respect for, the Arab world.
His works, however, at least for the purposes of this paper, also speak to
a different, if more modest, problem—as do all journalistic works that use
vivid, well-wrought images to such powerful effect. The aim of this
analysis is not to evaluate the truth behind Friedman's images—they speak
for themselves—but to evaluate a mass-communications theory based on the
premise that such portraits and examples are by their nature flawed and
deceptive. It is a question that many who are familiar with
exemplification theory and some of its more worthwhile conclusions cannot
help but find troubling.
One of the basic premises of exemplification theory is that examples are,
by their nature, distorted versions of "truth." The initial articulation
of the theory by Dolf Zillmann in 1999 compares examples unfavorably to
information that is example-free—that is, "baserate information," otherwise
defined as "reliable, quantitative information" (70). The implication is
that examples are necessarily unreliable: they are "bound to be less than
perfect," and because a "certain degree of imprecision is unavoidable"
(74), and the "emotionality" that accompanies vivid or dramatic imagery is
to be expected, examples are more often than not "qualitatively distorted"
(70). Because examples are products of a writer's choices—or
"idiosyncrasies," as Zillmann chooses to describe them (Zillmann 2002,
21)—an example can only be "adequate" at best: "Exemplar samples," he
argues, "are, at best, somewhat representative of their population and, at
worst, entirely nonrepresentative. The projection of the exemplified issue
accordingly varies from adequate to inadequate" (21). Baserate
information, on the other hand, because it "convey[s] data that are
collected in adherence to the principles of science" is "less partial and
hence more veridical"—more truthful—and, in an ideal world, has the "power
to put exemplars in their place as mere illustrations" (22).
This undisguised bias in favor of "quantitative," or "science-based," data
seems more than strange in a postmodern world long divested of the notion
that objectivity is possible in any realizable sense. Interestingly,
Zillmann himself hints at this problem in one of his earlier articles, in
which he defines "baserate" slightly differently: "Base-rate
information," he explains in 1996, "refers to general descriptions of the
number of people or things involved in a given social phenomenon" and "may
vary substantially in precision of quantification, ranging from
ratio-measurements involving minimal error to intuitive appraisals
expressed in ordinal comparisons" (Zillmann et al. 1996, 427). In other
words, presumably, there are lies, damned lies, and
statistics. Example-free information is not necessarily simply numbers, he
tells us, and, once you begin imagining what it might in fact include in
the practicable terms he offers, could mean any number of things—including
(perhaps) examples of some kind.
Neither does Zillmann always seem so certain of the inherently negative
nature of examples, admitting at one point that even sound bites can "add
insight about possible causal circumstances" (Aust and Zillmann 1996, 788),
and that examples can in fact be used to "elucidate a broader concept or
issue" (Zillmann 1999, 72)—presumably, that is, to aid in ascertaining
truth. He himself uses many examples in an attempt to elucidate his own
abstract arguments. I will analyze a few of these later in this paper.
More than merely flawed by design, however, examples are often used for
nefarious purposes, Zillmann argues: "Some media institutions . . . claim
poetic license and refuse to accept any responsibility for distorted
perceptions" (Zillmann 2002, 21). "The news is laden with exemplars," he
explains, "and often enough their selection seems more inspired by dramatic
and ideological slants than a commitment to impartial, balanced reporting"
In this paper I will argue that, far from distorting truth, exemplars can
be, and have been, used for precisely the opposite purpose: to provide
balance, credibility, and depth to stories otherwise in danger of bias and
distortion. Thomas Friedman in fact uses them purposefully to strive for
the "impartial, balanced reporting" that Zillmann so esteems—and he does so
masterfully, precisely because of the images he uses. Furthermore, I will
demonstrate that Friedman achieves this effect through contrast—a concept
that is central to the understanding of the way exemplars do, in fact,
work. The theoretical importance of this idea will become clear when I
return, in the conclusion of my paper, to a brief and final discussion of
some of the more basic philosophical arguments of Zillmann's work.
In the meantime, I turn to the remarkable talent of a man whose deep
understanding of the Arab peoples is even more extraordinarily evident in
the troubled aftermath of the tragedy of 9/11.
* * *
Thomas Friedman's documentary is an excellent starting point in the
analysis of his images of Islam (Friedman 2003b). Because the images in
the film are iconic, they are all the more compelling and predominant, and
so, perhaps, more immediately indicative of Friedman's intentions than are
the examples in his writings. Furthermore, they fill the content of the
work in a way that imagery in his op-ed columns simply does not. On
television, of course, images confront the eye from start to finish, and in
this documentary, examples of Muslims probably account for at least 99
percent of the pictures, profiles, and interviews that we see.
No clearer case than this film can be made that exemplars can be used in
powerful ways to invest highly emotional topics—topics easily prone to
stereotypes and predisposition—with nuance, balance, subtlety, and
depth. Friedman's portraits of Muslims are sympathetic, complex, and
highly educative. He accomplishes this effect principally with the use of
contrasting elements and ideas. The documentary is ingeniously constructed
around three notorious players in the 9/11 attack: Osama bin Laden;
Mohammed Atta, the leader of the attack on the Twin Towers; and Dr. Iman
Zowahari, described in the film as the ideological mastermind behind bin
Laden. Friedman opens the film with a narrative that asks the central
question, How did 9/11 happen? This narrative is followed by images of
Americans pursuing everyday activities, accompanied by the voice of bin
Laden—his words, translated, superimposed on the screen:
Why is it fear, killing, destruction continue to be our lot while security,
stability, and happiness continue to be your lot? This is unfair. It's
time we get even. The Islamic nation has started to attack you at the
hands of its beloved sons. You will be killed just as you kill and will be
bombed just as you bomb. And expect more that will distress you. Praise be
to almighty God.
Virtually every antithesis within the film is centralized in these opening
frames: East/West, evil/innocence, power/impotence, war/peace,
piety/iniquity. Between the images of these three men—bin Laden at the
beginning of the film (though we don't see his face until later in the
documentary), Atta halfway through the film (his ordinary middle-class
background emphasized), and Zowahari at the end of the film (again, with
voiceover and superimposed text)—we see ordinary Muslims, most of them
middle-class, many expressing ideas familiar to us all: hope for their own
futures, compassion for the suffering, concern about the future of the
world. Some express hatred for America, some admiration, some both. Dyab
Abou Jahjah, the young political leader, says he detests the logic that
demands killing innocents for any reason, yet describes the horror of 9/11
with cool detachment.
Suhaim al-Thani, a sixteen-year-old high school student in Qatar, looks
and acts a great deal older, and complains to Friedman with bitterness:
You see the blood of Arab people being spilled as if we're sheep. . . . You
think that your blood is expensive and that we're just animals. . . .
Palestinian blood isn't any cheaper than any other kind of blood. I've
heard of an Arab empire, and I have never really heard of a Jewish empire,
and America is only 300 years old. So how is our blood cheaper? In what
Dr. Aloush, whom Friedman debates on the Al-Jazeerah television station,
lived and studied in the United States for fourteen years, yet speaks with
fiery glee about the day that America will be vanquished. When Friedman
asks him how he could bring himself to live in a country he hates so
fiercely for so many years, he simply answers, "Know thine enemy."
Rami Khouri is editor in chief of Qatar's Daily Star. He, too, lived in
America for a number of years and is one of Friedman's many Arab
friends. He is chief umpire of his son's little league baseball team,
calling it the "most difficult job" he's ever had. He tells Friedman that
the day the United States relinquishes its double standard concerning the
Arab/Israeli conflict will be the first step toward that country's
reconciliation with the Islamic world.
Ali Salem, the Arab playwright in Cairo, is the most impressive voice of
wisdom and peace in the film. He expresses his love for all humanity in
most eloquent and moving terms and seems to harbor no prejudices or
anger. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, he published an essay in Newsweek
magazine entitled "An Apology from an Arab." In this piece he describes
the 9/11 terrorists as "dwarfs" who, out of "pathological jealousy," seek
to bring down towers.
Fauzaya Talhaoui is the sole Arab member of the Belgian
parliament. Belgium, which has a large immigrant Arab population, is
troubled with sporadic racial violence. She speaks with compassion of how
difficult it is for Arab men to live among Europeans who look upon them
with such contempt.
Nordin Maloujahmoun is president of the National Organization of Belgian
Muslims. He says Muslims worldwide suffer from a perceived loss of dignity.
Wisam Rochalina is the young boarding-school student who dreams of
attending university in America. She is filled with "facts" that she
gleans from television, the Internet, and Arab newspapers and magazines,
many of them false—Al Gore lost the presidency because he was Jewish, she
explains—but all of which she accepts without question.
Yousuf al-Shirawi is a dignified, witty man, former Minister of
Development and Industry in Bahrain. Friedman accompanies him to Bahrain's
first national election, trading jokes with him about Friedman's desire to
vote in the election, too, simply because he enjoys elections so much.
Basil El Baz, a young and upcoming businessman in Egypt, complains that
the United States has put up a wall to keep Muslims out, now that 9/11 has
had its shattering effect on American immigration practices. How can we
build a Harvard of our own, he asks Friedman, if we can't go to Harvard?
With these vivid portraits, Friedman demonstrates the complexity of the
Arab people: young, old, bitter, loving, educated, naďve, rich, poor,
weak, powerful. Freidman demonstrates in all his works that truly artful
images contrast with one another to provide balance and texture to a story,
but the most powerful images of all are inwardly ambiguous, as well. The
single most remarkable thing about the Arab people today, Friedman has told
Chris Matthews, is the great struggle that is going on within each of them
(Friedman 2003a). He calls it "the Conversation," and suggests that it is
a result of a deep ambivalence over Arab resentment toward America and
shame over what Islam has become. We see in Dyab regret tinged with
satisfaction; in Wisam ignorance alleviated by an intense desire for
knowledge; in Aloush a Western background coupled with a great hate for
America. Perhaps the most compelling contrast of all in the documentary,
however, is Friedman's image of the Al-Asar Mosque. He was given
permission to attend the mosque on a Friday, during noon prayer, and
describes, as we watch, the strange and unsettling experience of seeing the
mosque taken over by angry, militant young men when the last words of the
sermon are heard. "In an instant we went from prayer to politics," he
says. "For me it was a real window on the struggle for the soul of Islam."
Friedman's editorials—and his symbolic images—are highly reminiscent of
the kind of approach we see in this film. His columns are sprinkled with
Arab villains, Arab rulers both good and bad, Arab scholars and
professionals and pundits—but mostly his writings are filled with portraits
of his Arab friends, of which he has many.
On September 25, 2001, we read of his Lebanese friend, Diala, who jokes
darkly about how she carries a bomb in her luggage when she flies—because
"the odds against two people carrying a bomb on the same plane are so much
higher." In his November 13 column he asks a sweet-faced eleven-year-old
madrasa student what his reaction was to the 9/11 attacks and is told, "I
am pleased that America has had to face pain, because the rest of the world
has tasted its pain." When the boy's teacher is asked why Americans are so
good at selling Coke all over the world but can't sell their policies, the
answer is "Because their policies are poisonous and their Coke is sweet."
On November 16, 2001, Friedman quotes a Pakistani writer's address to bin
Laden: "The last thing Muslims need is the growing darkness in your caves.
. . . Holy Prophet Muhammad, on returning from a battle, said: 'We return
from little Jihad to greater Jihad.' True Jihad today is not in the
hijacking of planes, but in the manufacturing of them."
He quotes an Arab friend on November 23, who tells him "My 11-year-old son
thinks bin Laden is a good man."
On February 10, 2002, he describes how an Arab editor in London asked him
this startling question: "I hope you will not be insulted. . . . Are Jews
in the media behind the campaign to smear Saudia Arabia and Islam?"
And on May 5, 2002, Friedman describes his most classic image of all: an
Indonesian boy, spotted by a U.S. diplomat in Jakarta, wearing an Osama bin
Laden T-shirt and a New York Yankees cap. "We must make sure that he grows
into the hat, not the T-shirt," is Friedman's simple comment.
It would seem that exemplars, far from being weak and inadequate purveyors
of truth, are perhaps the most powerful tools of all when communicating the
most profound ideas—at least in the hands of a skillful journalist.
* * *
The richness of Friedman's exemplars, as we see, lies in their variety—in
the contrasts among them, within them, and against the context in which
they are embedded. Within this complexity, we sense, lies something
approaching truth—because, in some way, we are moved. This fact belies
Zillmann's insistence on the precision of "sameness"—as if truth can be
found only in redundant iteration of some formula or equation: "The
highest degree of similarity is demanded," he argues. "Exemplars are to be
considered instances of whatever kind that are capable of representing
other instances only to the extent that they share with them all defining
features" (1999, 72).
It is difficult to understand the philosophical or theoretical foundation
upon which this argument is grounded. Other than the implicit premise that
"scientific" or "quantitative" data are superior in their ability to
reflect "truth," he seems to rely on dictionary definitions of "exemplar"
to justify his claim: "lexical definitions," he explains, "focus on this
similarity by stipulating that the exemplar be typical or characteristic of
exemplified entities" (72). Elsewhere he simply refers to this premise as
if it is self-evident: "Tacit understanding of exemplification . . .
entails recognition of shared features between an example . . . and the
exemplified, as well as between all possible examples of the exemplified" (72).
Following this logic, it seems that the ideal example would simply be a
verbatim repetition of the exemplified, because a precise restatement is
never possible, as Zillmann himself admits: "A certain degree of
imprecision is unavoidable," he writes, "because no two events are truly
alike" (74). This statement, ironically, penetrates to the heart of the
problem of objectivity: even an identical example, restated with the
highest possible precision, would not be an identical event in that the
first reading would differ in some way from the second in the reader's
perception. The problems are legion here and are further compounded by
Zillmann's insistence that ideal exemplification would not merely involve
the highest possible precision once, but many times over: "Only the use of
large numbers of exemplars would insure the inclusion of infrequently
occurring but nonetheless relevant events." He seems to realize, however,
the basic instability of the argument: "Although the employment of such
large numbers of exemplars accomplishes great representational precision,
it is often or mostly unworkable because it entails a forbidding amount of
redundant information about the typical case" (76).
In fact, a large number of exemplars can only involve continued
imprecision, or contrasts, or shades of meaning. The skilled user of
language, of course, understands this reality and, in search of truth,
exploits it. The peculiarity of exemplification theory lies in the fact
that it does not see this, despite the philosophical era from which it
springs. In a postmodern, poststructural world, exemplification theory
seems to be immune from the influence of structural linguistics, for
instance, and from Ferdinand de Saussure's famous comment, "There are only
differences." All words have associative relationships with other words,
and have no meaning that is not influenced by these differences (Saussure
1974). Poststructuralism goes even further by refusing any objective
concepts of truth (or law) at all, grounding itself in the imprecision of
language and in the fateful way that it informs all human thought. That
exemplification theory should therefore exist in this philosophical milieu
is a puzzle—except for the fact that its emphasis on the power
relationships that lie behind an individual's journalistic choices—as well
as on the effects of those choices—is decidedly postmodern, and, in my
opinion, is the single most valuable element of the theory.
We can see in Zillmann's own writings his fondness for examples, and
indeed, his skill at using them. His initial presentation of the theory
(Zillmann 1999) is sprinkled with images of beastly little chow chows,
Amazon headhunters, inquisitive Neanderthals, unruly Punk-rock fans, and
rabid geese. What is most useful about these examples, however, is not
their similarity to the abstract concepts he wishes to elucidate, but
precisely their differences. That there are similarities is inarguable,
but the differences are what illuminate Zillmann's ideas. Skillful use of
imagery brings the abstract idea into relief and (we intuitively
understand) contains a kernel of truth that example-free language cannot
hope to attain, even at its most incisive. The following is a telling
So may the match between intent and performance [be exemplified], or
between precept, action choice, the expectation of consequences, and actual
consequences. For instance, children who consume a fair amount of fairy
tales readily appreciate that elderly women with deformity of the back and
screechy voice harbor hostile intentions and, given the opportunity, act on
The joining of these two sentences—their balance, contrast, and
complementarity—puts to rest, I believe, the idea of the value of redundancy.
Examples in academic literature often consist of such documented
quotations as the one I just used. A string of such examples is usually
meant to illustrate subtle, or not so subtle, distinctions in the way
various scholars discuss the same idea. Zillmann does this, too, of
course, and the following is one such instance:
The inclusion of qualitatively distorted, atypical cases in news reports
proved to be . . . powerful and persistent—the effect manifesting itself
even in the presence of incompatible baserate information (Gibson and
Zillman 1994). The emotionality of exhibited cases emerged as yet another
potent factor in creating lasting effect on impressions, beliefs, and
associated dispositions (Aust and Zillmann 1996). The use of
emotion-evoking imagery was found to create perceptions and dispositions
that, over time, actually gained strength (Zillman and Gan 1996).
Taken together, the effects of such case presentations have been
interpreted as showing that recipients give disproportional attention to
concrete, often vividly displayed events. (Zillmann 1999, 70)
Each quotation adds another layer to the essence of the exemplified; each
corresponds to the other and contrasts with the other in quintessentially
defining ways. Zillmann's idea would be incomplete with the absence of any
one example—yet none mirrors the other perfectly.
Others of Zillmann's examples contain intriguing internal contrasts and
ambiguities that he himself recognizes and uses to good effect: "We may
smile or cringe," he offers, "when a child, apparently as the result of
frequent witch exemplification in Grimm-style fairy tales, points to a lady
in the street and utters, 'A witch, a witch!'" That such an instance can
elicit either amusement or dismay—or both—is an especially telling
characteristic of an exemplar designed to reflect an abstract truth about
"the etiology of our own beliefs" (73). Zillmann's own "gentle leopards"
and "ferocious rabbits" (88) seem particularly relevant here.
All of these examples are the product of a fine writer and remind us that
the best that exemplification theory has to offer is indeed worthy of
considerable attention. That the paucity of minority roles in prime-time
television is a disgrace is hard to dispute; that last summer was dubbed
the "Summer of the Kidnapped Child" is good reason for concern, when it
means that adults nationwide are planting microchips in their kids and
generally falling victim, in the worst possible way, to the "mean-world"
syndrome of Gerbner et al. (2002). Zillmann is right to be concerned about
these things, and journalists, if they are honest with themselves, can
certainly benefit from his insights. But such superior observations
deserve to be built on rock, not sand. In my eyes, the best that
exemplification theory has to offer needs sounder philosophical grounding.
Theories that fail to recognize the most masterful works of journalism,
focusing instead on those that are most flawed, cannot possibly claim to
describe a universal truism. That some people use examples badly indicates
nothing about the innate nature of examples. In Thomas Friedman's works we
see language open up, flowering to its greatest potential, whereas
exemplification theory would have language shrink to near extinction. The
supreme irony is that Zillmann's finest writing is his own greatest
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