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What is our Tent?

by Vamik Volkan Friday, Jul. 14, 2006 at 1:58 AM

the suicide assassin fancies himself as a victim and as almighty because he knows God is on his side..Interdisciplinary non-political groups could develop common strategies for countering regression.


The ethno-psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan on the psychology of large groups, war and a new Renaissance

[This interview published in: Freitag 24, 6/16/2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

[Vamik Volkan comes from a Turk family in Cyprus. He studied medicine in Ankara. In 1959, he immigrated to the US where he was trained as a psychiatrist and analyst. He was an advisor in many crisis areas of the world for international organizations from the UN to the American Psychiatrist Association. He is a professor emeritus for psychiatry at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville where he founded the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction. He is currently working in Vienna. His 30 books have been translated in more than twelve languages. Psychosozial Verlag published his latest book “Blind Trust, Large Groups and Group Leaders in Crisis Times” in 2006.]

Freitag: You recently organized a forum “Psychoanalysis and Politics. Violence, Aggression and Regression.” Do you seek to strengthen the role of psychoanalysts in dramatic international conflicts?

Vamik Volkan: Our goal was to extend Freud’s thoughts to so-called “large groups,” religious, ethnic and nationalist groups. We raised the question: What is the relation of large groups and aggression? When Sigmund Freud wrote his texts about war and aggression, he concentrated on the inner world of individuals. When large groups were discussed, he asked what these groups mean for the individual. Today we strive to explain a psychology of large groups. Psychoanalysts pursuing field research in the worldwide trouble spots should bring their experience in diplomatic processes. Our goal is bringing together psychoanalysts familiar with ethnic and religious conflicts with diplomats interested in new forms of communication.

Can psychoanalysts really contribute to better understanding in the world?

Psychoanalysis can only contribute little. In their practice, psychoanalysts are exclusively involved with individuals. However I am also occupied with “enemy groups” outside of my own practice. Leading representatives of these groups could be moved to dialogue. For example, I visited Palestinian refugee camps several times. On the basis of this experience, I could study the factors in the readiness for violence of ethnic or religious groups.

The following example may be helpful. Imagine a huge tent. In it, thousands or millions of persons are assembled – a all individuals with their own psychic conditions. The tent rests on one pole, a leader. The people are all individuals; they wear their own clothes and have their own identities. Still each one also has a piece of the tent canopy as a second, common article of clothing. That is the large group identity of Arabs, Jews or Christians. If a crisis arises – when the leader is weak or someone slings mud at the tent from the outside -, the same conduct always occurs: People give up their own identity and protect and repair the tent canopy. When one enters a refugee camp or enemy group to discuss the people’s problems with them, the same behavior can always be observed. They will do everything to preserve their large group identity.

In many places, Moslems feel attacked by western conduct. Do you think conflicts will grow between Arab and western cultures?

Unfortunately problems will increase since the regressive tendencies are advancing worldwide. As a psychoanalyst, I prefer the following description: there is a battle between the id – exaggerated emotions, sadism, masochism and murder – and the super-ego – the “you may not do that,” “I will hit you.” In all this, there is no place for the ego to wonder: “What is happening in the world?” There is no chance for dialogue.

How can dialogues arise between hostile parties?

While these questions can be played through intellectually, in reality the emotional blockades are immense. I hardly know how these dialogues begin. One thing I can say with certainty. The gain would be enormous if one refused building five bombs and gave the money – perhaps a million dollars or less – to an interdisciplinary group, like the group I have led for nearly 20 years in the United States and began the dialogue between the antagonistic parties. Everything depends on opening a dialogue, creating a communication space between the fighting parties. In this way, people could understand their psychic realities. Errors can be uncovered in an emotional dialogue, not an intellectual dialogue.

Let me give you one example. Since September 11, enemies have always adjusted to one another when crises become permanent and hopeless. This happens everywhere. I do not think the United States will change into the Taliban and perpetrate ghastly attacks. Rather enemies assimilate in the course of certain processes. At present there are no interdisciplinary and non-political groups that turn to the pressing questions and create an empathetic vision and a healing language. I see my task as supporting this development.

You have grappled for years with the phenomenon of suicide assassins in the Islamic world. How did this potential danger develop?

Suicide assassins are chosen on account of certain experiences, inflicted humiliations and traumas and drilled for two years. This systematic training aims at making them spokespersons of the large group. Finally religion creeps in enabling them to cling to the illusion of not really dying after the suicide assassination. Rather they will find the suitable woman for the marriage ceremony in heaven.

Nowadays the Islamic tent is shattered. Islamic suicide assassins cannot be understood from their individual psychology. They act according to large group psychology. Normal persons threatened by suicide have a weak self-esteem. In contrast, suicide assassins have a high self-esteem because they climb to be spokesmen of the large group… There is no point going to one, two or perhaps a hundred suicide assassins before they kill us. The strategy must be: “How can we understand the nature of the tent canopy? What cashes exist there? How can we strengthen the tent canopy?”

Why is it hopeless for a psychoanalyst to do therapy on individuals?

We must recognize how large group psychology functions and can be led out of regression. I also studied the life of Osama bin Laden. There one can see how historical processes influence the psyche of leaders under certain conditions. Bin Laden’s childhood circumstances make understandable his development into a revengeful person. Today tens of thousands of Moslems emulate him. Why do these persons follow this madness? What wounds do they have? How can we not humiliate them? We need a new vision to understand the world and persons who do horrific things. If we simply condemn evil, the acts of these persons will never be studied. In looking behind the acts of these persons, we could explore what makes them so dreadful. We could develop strategies that aim at bringing peace.

How do you judge the decision of 40,000 members of the Iranian revolutionary guard to sacrifice themselves as suicide assassins if the Americans carry out a military attack?

This does not surprise me at all. You have to understand what drives these persons through their religion and culture. How does masochism appear in this situation? When religion mixes with politics, the result is deadly everywhere. In an extremely regressive process, people feel themselves omnipotent and as victims. The suicide assassin fancies himself as a victim and at the same time as almighty because he knows God is on his side. Then he develops a psychology that allows him to commit sadistic and masochist acts. This psychology underlies radical Islam.

These things must be taken very seriously. They cannot be settled with bombs. Since September 11, 2001, Americans and other parties have not built interdisciplinary, non-political groups to develop common strategies for countering the psychology of worldwide regression.

Fundamentalist currents are growing in Islam and beyond Islam. In the United States, a return of religion with massive fundamentalist tendencies is manifest. Is this a universal phenomenon?

As I said, when politics mixes with religion, the result is deadly. When George W. Bush speaks today of a “crusade,” this shows the universality of this phenomenon. We need a new renaissance to escape this danger. A new thinking and development of earnest, peaceful initiatives are imperative.

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