Vamık D. Volkan, M.D., DLFAPA, FACPsa.



Let us consider an imaginary lantern (a transitional object) with one transparent side and one opaque side located between the infant or toddler and his or her actual environment. When the toddler feels comfortable, fed, well-rested, and loved, he or she turns the transparent side towards the real things that surround him or her, illuminating them and beginning tounderstand them as entities separate from his or her self. When the infant feels uncomfortable, hungry, or sleepy, he or she turns the opaque side of the lantern towards the frustrating world, “wiping out” the surrounding real things. In normal development, the toddler plays with his or her “lantern” hundreds and hundreds of times, getting to know reality in one direction and succumbing back to lonely, omnipotent (that is narcissistic) existence in the other direction. The child repeats this until his or her mind begins to hold onto unchangeable external realities, such as having a mother separate from herself or himself who is sometimes gratifying and at other times not gratifying.

During such repeated “play,” the toddler mind learns to both differentiate and diffuse states of mind: illusion and reality, omnipotence and restricted ability, suspension of disbelief and the impact of the real world, and others. Using the transitional object, the child is involved in a watershed concept. If the child’s development is normal, he or she eventually develops an acceptance of the “not me” world, the indifference of the universe, and logical thinking.

However, even in adulthood, people also need “moments of rest,"  if you will, during which they do not need to differentiate between what is real and what is illusion and in which logical thinking need not be maintained. It is in these moments that the relation to the transitional object echoes throughout the lifetime. At moments of ”rest,” then, a Christian might know that it is biologically impossible for a woman to have a baby without the semen of a man, but also believes in the virgin birth. The need for what I am calling moments of rest varies from individual to individual and from one social group to another. Accordingly, I, consider the foundation that supports religious beliefs and feelings to derive from “normal” developmental processes in early childhood and from the times when we require in adulthood a “moment of rest” from the struggle to differentiate between illusion and reality. Religion is not a “universal neurosis” responding only to mental conflicts of childhood associated with feelings of helplessness and the corresponding desire for an omnipotent father.

The image of God incorporates input from different sources as the child grows and is modified according to an individual’s own psychology—early identifications and unconscious fantasies, for example—and socio-cultural experiences, education, and use of religious symbols. For each individual, the image of God becomes a source of various objects, maternal or paternal love, fear of punishment, hatred, omnipotence, and so on—including very significantly the sense of belonging to his or her family, clan, and/or large group. There are individuals whose adult version of transitional objects or phenomena is an exaggerated investment in religion; their very identity, therefore, depends upon the regressive use of religious belief and feelings. Returning to the lantern metaphor, the religious fundamentalist is preoccupied, whether mildly or severely, with keeping the opaque side of the lantern turned against the external world, perceived as threatening and frustrating.

As a group, they exhibit what theologian Martin Marty and historian Scott Appleby (1995), call the“tendency of some members of traditional religious communities to separate from fellow believers and to define the sacred community in terms of its disciplined opposition to nonbelievers and ‘lukewarm’ believers alike” (p.1). There are fundamentalist groups within practically every faith tradition—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Confucianism included. These movements share certain traits in spite of differences among them in terms of doctrine, size, social composition, scope of influence, and propensity to violence.

Some religious fundamentalists form “cults,” like the Branch Dividians in Waco and the followers of Jim Jones at Jonestown. Others are more widespread in a society, as was the case with the Taliban. While there are descriptive differences between the two that should not be ignored, psychoanalytically they contain similar dynamics. In fact, by observing smaller “cults,” we can learn much about more generalized extreme religious fundamentalism in a society. Another factor to keep in mind is that not all fundamentalist groups initiate violence, whether it is turned inward (massive suicide) or outward (terrorism). Significantly, though, extremism in fundamentalist religious groups is closely linked with large-group regression, which includes the following characteristics.
These characteristics will not be displayed by all fundamentalist religious groups but will vary according to the extent of the regression:

1- Absolute belief in possession of the "true" divine text and/or rule.

2- A supreme leader as the sole interpreter of the divine text.

3- Exhibition of "magical beliefs."

4- Pessimistic attitude.

5- Co-existing paradoxical feelings of victimization and omnipotence.

6- Construction of psychological (and sometimes physical) barricades between the group and  the rest of the world.

7- Expectation of threat or danger from people and things outside the group's borders.

8- Altered gender, family, child-rearing, and sexual norms, often including degradation of  women.

9- Changed shared morality, which may eventually be accepting of the destruction of  monuments, buildings,
or other symbols perceived as threatening to the group's beliefs.

10- Attempting mass suicide or mass murder in order to enhance or protect the large-group identity.

When the regression is not severe, a religious fundamentalist group, like a normal child, can "play" with turning the lantern to one side or the other without extreme shared anxiety. When the group's regression is severe, the "wiping out" of the aspects of external reality that are threatening cannot be accomplished playfully, and the group may accomplish their task through massive suicide (Jonestown.) Or, the group may strike out, and in fact may be involved in terrorism in order to deal with the threatening outsiders. Although these are two very different acts, what is important is that the violence is conducted at the service of protecting the shared large-group identity.


The Taliban:

The Taliban was a severely regressed fundamentalist group that also evolved as a political/military power. As such, they exhibited the ten signs of extremist religious fundamentalism listed above, with some specific surface differences. For example, until the United States and its partners began wiping out the Taliban, their sense of "pessimism" was repressed due to their success in taking power, practically speaking, of almost all of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, this pessimism that is a characteristic of extremist religious fundamentalism existed within the Taliban, albeit in the shadows. The Taliban’s threatening external reality expanded to include non-human objects, such as the huge statues of Buddha in the Bamian Valley that were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001.

As is now quite common knowledge, the Taliban rose to power in Afghanistan's post- Soviet wretchedness and were originally recruited mostly from young Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. The Taliban, whose name means "religious students," came to notice when, in late 1994, they successfully drove a local bandit group away from a 30-truck convoy trying to initiate a trade route between Pakistan and Central Asia. Eventually, it grew from that original core group of only about 100 into a cohort of 35,000 men from 43 countries. In its power base, the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, the Taliban demonstrated its power with draconian public punishments for crime and stringent controls on the actions of girls and women.

As they refused to deal with warlords and fought local police forces as well as roving bandits, the Taliban applied a strict interpretation of Islamic law to combat the corruption and chaos that plagued post-Soviet Afghanistan. They were led by a man, Mullah Omar, who then was in his mid-thirties.

What may interest psychoanalysts is the event that made Omar a supreme leader of a regressed large group. This event, in a sense, brings to life Freud's (1921), description of (regressed) mass psychology, in that the followers identify with each other and rally around an idealized leader. In 1994, Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, was still under President Burhanuddin Rabbani's control. The Taliban was divided on their next course of action. At this critical time, Omar wore the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, which has been kept in amarble vault in a Kandahar shrine for over 250 years, sealing his superiority and crystallizingregressed leader-follower psychology. The prophet's cloak, which some people of Kandahar reportedly believe can cure the sick and heal the lame, had only been removed from its vault on two previous occasions: in 1929, when King Emanullah invoked it to unify the country, and again in 1935, when authorities turned to the relic to stop a cholera epidemic in the city. After the Taliban was driven out of Kandahar by the Eastern and Northern Alliances, on December 18, 2001, a journalist, Norimitsu Onishi, interviewed a 48-year-old Afghan, Qari Shawali, who is keeper of the Prophet's cloak at the "Shrine of the Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad." Onishi's interview, along with a large colored picture of Shawali, appeared the next day in the New York Times. Shawali's description of Mullah Omar wearing the cloak clearly indicates that it was a deliberate act through which Omar legitimized his religious leadership. It was a form of propaganda that attempted to contaminate Omar’s image with that of the Prophet. However, because of Omar's own religious beliefs, apparently, this was not an easy task for him—he was apparently very anxious, according to Shawali’s description.

It was a Friday in the spring of 1996 that Mullah Omar came to see the cloak. He told Shawali: "Here I am. I have taken a bath and I have put on new clothes. Let me see the Robe." Since Shawali had not bathed himself, and it would be sinful to touch the Prophet’s cloak unprepared and “dirty,” Omar had to return that night. When he arrived at the shrine, accompanied by 100 followers, Shawali had prepared himself to handle the cloak. The keeper of the cloak recalled how Omar trembled when he laid his eyes on the sacred robe; the leader became disoriented. When he prepared to pray, he mistook the way toward Mecca, and he had to be helped to position himself in the right direction.

A week later, now seemingly more confident, Omar appeared at the shrine once more. He took the robe to an old mosque in the center of Kandahar, climbed onto the mosque's roof, and "wore" the cloak. "For the next 30 minutes, he held the cloak aloft, his palms inserted in its sleeves." The crowd watching him cheered; many lost consciousness (Onishi, 2001). It is clear that Mullah Omar's involvement with the Prophet's robe took place at a critical time. Donning the cloak publicly was certainly a gamble: the act could have easily been seen as blasphemous. But, by successfully fusing his image with the image of the Prophet in the minds of his followers, Omar blurred the reality that he and the Prophet lived centuries apart and are two (perhaps dramatically) different human beings and leaders. Thus, Omar was able to use the cloak to solidify the shared political-religious identity of his followers as well as his image as the commander of the faithful. It appears that Mullah Omar's (likely deliberate) attempt to blur reality was accompanied with widespread "magical" thinking among hisfollowers. It was only a few months after Omar merged his image with the image of the Prophet that the Taliban captured Kabul, began to enforce their oppressive laws on the Afghan population, and allowed Osama bin Laden and his al-Queda organization, with their limitless funds, to thrive in Afghanistan.

Although I have not discussed the Taliban’s rise to power in great detail, I believe a description of Mullah Omar’s crystallization as leader of the Taliban and the swift, subsequent rise of the Taliban’s power in Afghanistan provides insight into the psychodynamics involved in group formation and in leader-follower relationships, especially in the case of an extreme religious fundamentalist group such as the Taliban.




1- Freud, Sigmund (1913.) Totem and Taboo. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, tr. James Strachey, 13:1-162.
London: Hogarth Press, 1955.

2- Freud, Sigmund (1921.) Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud,
tr. James Strachey, 18:63-143. London: Hogarth Press, 1955.

3- Freud, Sigmund (1927.) The Future of An Illusion. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, tr. James Strachey, 21:5-56.
London: Hogarth Press, 1955.

4- Marty, Martin E. and Appleby, (Eds.) (1995.) Fundamentalism Comprehended. Chicago: University of  Chicago Press.

5- Onishi, Norimitsu (2001.) A Tale of the Mullah and Muhammad’s Amazing Cloak. New York Times, December 9, pp.B1 and B3.

6- Winnicott, Donald W. (1953.) Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34:89-97.



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Last modified on: Apr 20, 2016