Speaking Truth to Power in a Dictatorship: Secular Ideology versus Islamic Realpolitik—A Fierce Dispute in Ṣaddām’s Iraq

Amatzia Baram, Ban al-Maliki

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In July 1986, a dramatic top-secret meeting of the Baʿth Pan Arab Leadership, the party’s highest ideological body, fully recorded by Ṣaddām Ḥussein, took place in wartime Baghdad. This meeting is thrice unique. First, the medium, an unabridged, audio-recording. Second, the topic, the dilemma of many Middle Eastern ruling regimes, vacillating between a secular, or semi-secular ideology and Islamic political expediency. In the case of the Baʿth, a more secular and ideological movement than most, this dilemma is particularly poignant. Third, it is exposing a bitter clash between a brutal dictator, who had executed comrades for opposing him, and three brave lieutenants. On the surface it was convened to discuss a tactical alliance with a sworn enemy, the Muslim Brethren (MB). At a dangerous moment in the Iraq-Iran War, Ṣaddām identified swelling popular religiosity. He hoped that an alliance with the MB would blunt criticism of his regime’s secularism. All the same, some participants feared that secular Arabism, the central tenet of Baʿthi faith, was at stake. Unexpectedly, the meeting produced a startling drama. Albeit temporarily, it forced Ṣaddām to take one step back. Other ideologically oriented dictators, such as Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Ḥāfiẓ al-Assad, and the Ayatollah Khomeini, too, faced ideology-politics dilemmas, yet none of them left such a surprising chronicle. A similar audio recording also comes to mind that offers a rare verbatim meeting of the inner working of a county’s highest institution at a moment of crisis–the transcripts of Kennedy’s ExComm during the Cuban Missile Crisis. While it deliberated an existential global matter and took place in a democracy, one sees similarities, namely, its detail, the exposure of emotional charges, the ability to speak truth to power, and the benefit resulting from that ability.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)317-343
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of the Middle East and Africa
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Author(s). Published with license by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.


  • Assad
  • Baʿth-Islam relations
  • Kennedy’s ExComm
  • Khomeini
  • Ṣaddām

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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