Bin Laden’s Dreams, and Ours

The recently released videotape of Osama bin Laden openly discussing the September 11 terrorist attacks does more than offer compelling evidence of his role in organizing the attacks. The video also provides the best insight yet into the religious and psychological world of bin Laden and his followers. A major portion of the video involves bin Laden, an unnamed sheik, and several other men discussing prophetic dreams and visions relating to the September 11 attacks. Many American commentators have expressed amazement at bin Laden’s interest in such tribal superstitions. But in fact this seemingly nonsensical conversation is quite revealing of the deepest motivations guiding the behavior of bin Laden and his followers.

Dreams and visions have played an enormously important role in Islam from its very beginning. The Prophet Muhammed is said to have received the first revelation of the Qur’an in a dream visitation from the angel Gabriel. Throughout his life Muhammed experienced dreams he believed were communications from Allah, and he encouraged his followers to tell him their dreams so he could interpret them. Many of these dreams included images of violence and warfare, and in each case the dream was interpreted as a sign of God’s support and guidance in the battle against the unbelievers.

Viewed in this light, the video portrays a ritual reenactment of the dream interpretation practices of the Prophet Muhammed. Bin Laden, playing the role of the religious/military/political leader, is taking time out from the war against the infidels to speak with his followers about dreams, visions, and other reassuring signs that God is on their side and will guide them to ultimate victory. This is identical with what Muhammed practiced with his followers on a regular basis almost 1400 years earlier.

The video is perhaps the clearest evidence yet found that bin Laden is patterning his life after the Prophet Muhammed, and feels himself blessed with the same degree of divine approval for his violent struggle with the enemies of God. His perverse success in persuading thousands of young Muslim men to fight and die for him is very likely due to their perception of him as a Muhammed figure—an inspiring warrior-prophet who embodies the wrathful power of Allah.

Can anything be learned from the particular dreams discussed in the video? Bin Laden and his followers mention a total of seven dreams and dream-like experiences. The first involves a strange soccer game between American pilots and Muslim pilots, which the Muslim team wins. Three other dreams portray airplanes crashing into tall buildings. A man is reported to have had a vision of carrying a huge plane on his back to the desert, while another man envisioned a group Muslim faithful leaving for jihad in New York and Washington. Bin Laden says a soldier told him he’d dreamed of a tall building in America, and then of learning from a spiritual teacher how to “play karate.”

What’s most striking about these dreams is how similar they are to the dreams reported by Americans about the terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan. Since September 11 I have gathered several hundred dream reports, most of them highly disturbing nightmares, from people all across the U.S. The predominant themes in these fear-ridden dreams are airplane crashes, military conflict, building explosions, terrorist attacks, and threats to children and family members. Many of the American dream images are almost identical to the bin Laden dreams, but the emotions they evoke are radically different: the American dreams are suffused with fear, confusion, and a horrible sense of vulnerability, while the bin Laden dreams are welcomed as good omens. What terrifies the Americans brings joy to the Muslims. Nothing could make clearer the distressingly huge psychological gap separating the two warring sides.

Many of the dreams people have reported to me came before September 11 and appear, like the bin Laden dreams, to have “prophetically” foreseen the attack. There is of course great scientific controversy about whether dreams can actually anticipate future events. But for people who feel they’ve had such dreams, the experience often bring a terrible sense of guilt—“Did I really see this coming? Could I have done anything to stop it?” For those people, the most chilling part of the bin Laden videotape surely comes right after he tells about the young man who dreamed of a tall building in America: “At that point,” bin Laden tells his followers, “I was worried that maybe the secret would be revealed if everyone starts seeing it in their dreams. So I closed the subject.”

Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D., teaches religion and psychology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He is editor of Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming (Palgrave, 2001)

Joe Lieberman’s Farewell Dream

Joe Lieberman's Farewell Dream by Kelly Bulkeley“He [Lieberman] was feeling loose now, so much so that he began telling aides about a dream he’d had the other night in which long-dead Democratic Connecticut Governor John Dempsey had walked across a stage and waved at him.  Lieberman was puzzled by the dream.  It was hard not to wonder what his unconscious was telling him: Was this the Democratic organization from the past wishing the senator well or waving goodbye?”

“Joe Lieberman’s War: The Hawkish Senator Finds Himself in an Epic Battle—With his Own Party,” by Meryl Gordon, New York Magazine, August 7, 2006.

On August 8th, 2006, Joseph Lieberman, the incumbent Democratic Senator from Connecticut, lost the Democratic primary to newcomer Ned Lamont, whose anti-war campaign stirred up sufficient liberal opposition to reject Lieberman and his unwavering support for President Bush’s campaign in Iraq.  His defeat seemed to mark the end of his career, a dramatic and precipitous fall given that just six years earlier he was the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate alongside Al Gore.

Lieberman did not accept defeat, however.  Instead he ran as an independent in the November 2006 general election and handily beat Lamont, retaining his senate seat for a fourth term.

From our vantage today, his puzzling dream visitation from the late Governor (Dempsey died in 1989) might qualify as a kind of prophetic anticipation of the political near-death experience he was about to endure  (Lieberman, an observant Jew, would likely know of his religious tradition’s long belief in the prophetic power of dreaming, especially in times of mortal danger).  Lieberman did indeed come within waving distance of his political demise.  A classic theme in visitation dreams is a welcoming gesture from the dead, which is often interpreted as a sign that the dreamer will soon depart this world and journey to the next.

After he lost the primary, Lieberman could have accepted the Democratic voters’ verdict, followed the path taken by Dempsey (a loyal member of the state’s Democratic party who retired in 1971), and left the political scene.  Instead he fought against the Democrats, and won.  He survived the threat to his political life, but perhaps at the cost of losing connection with his ideological ancestors.

[I wrote the above in the summer of 2008.  Recent days have given new reasons to wonder about the psychodynamics of the Senator’s movement away from the Democratic party.]

Sarah Palin Dreams

Sarah Palin Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyWhen Sarah Palin was first named in late August 2008 as John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate, several people (both supporters and opponents) began reporting dreams of her.  An article posted on Slate by Abby Callard and David Plotz, “Your Dreams (and Nightmares) about Sarah Palin,” appeared on September 12, 2008.  The article includes twenty of what they judged to be the most interesting dreams sent in by their readers, with some comments from me. 

 Since then I have gathered several other dreams involving Sarah Palin.  At some point soon I will set up a website for people who want to share dreams they’ve had of Sarah Palin, comparable to the www.idreamofobama.com site for people to share dreams of President Obama. 

Till then, here’s one that came in response to the 2010 Zogby survey question asking, “What is the most recent dream you can remember?”:

 “You’re not going to believe this, but it was a dream with Sarah Palin. It wasn’t sexual, it was a situation where she was with me at my boyhood home in San Antonio, Texas, whereby I was in the front yard with her standing with me. I was showing her a Christmas ornament I made along with a table and chair I made. Next thing I know we’re in my older brother’s 1965 Chevrolet Impala. I was in the driver’s seat and she was sitting next to me real close like we were an item. I don’t remember any words being spoken, but it was very cool since she is such a beautiful woman. I hated the dream to end, but it did after only a few frames. It’s amazing to me because I remember very few dreams that I have so this one was very cool to have remembered.”

 The dream came to a 50-year old Hispanic man in Texas, a Catholic and conservative Republican who voted for McCain and Palin in the 2008 election. 

 Not knowing anything else about the dreamer personally, it’s impossible to say what the dream means to him.  But it does seem to accurately reflect his positive feelings toward Palin.  Indeed, the dream’s intensity and strong memorability suggest that Palin represents ideals, aspirations, and values that are especially meaningful to this man.

 In light of previous research I’ve done, the dream sounds similar to the dreams of Bill Clinton that liberal Democrats reported in the early 1990’s.  In those dreams, people found themselves in close, casual, rather intimate contact with a political candidate they greatly admired in waking life.  Often there was an aura of romantic ambiguity, as if the dreamer was struggling to understand powerful feelings of attraction that were more than friendly but not exactly sexual. 

 Then, as now, it seems that dreams offer a kind of “charisma index” that shows the deep psychological impact a politician can have on his or her supporters.