Referendums put decision-making fully into the hands of the majority. Whether this is wise or not is a debate that I don’t feel ready to contribute to right now, but there’s no doubt that many factors are likely to have a critical influence when a narrow majority can command such a dramatic change.
This morning, I’ve been reminded of a story from the canon of the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The story concerns the nature of government and the regimes that arise based on what the people deserve – a case of being careful for what you wish for. I’ve included a brief excerpt below.
Excerpt from The pilgrim and the old woman who dwelt in the desert
A man once ventured across the desert–a traveller with a group of fellow pilgrims. He fell into a deep sleep, and when he awoke, found that his caravan had gone. Not knowing which way he should go, he walked for many miles, before coming upon a tent, in which slept an old woman and her dog.
The pilgrim saluted the woman, and having explained his situation, asked whether she might offer him nourishment to satisfy his hunger.
The woman instructed him, “Go to the valley which you see before you, and there you will find many serpents. Catch some of these, that I might broil them for you.”
The man protested that he had never captured serpents before, and that he was afraid to do so. Neither had he eaten them, as they seemed disagreeable to him.
“I shall come with you,” offered the woman, “And I will catch some serpents, and then broil them for you.”
This the woman did. Seeing that there was no alternative but to eat from what she had brought for him, the man ate the serpent meat.
He then enquired where he might obtain water to quench his burning thirst.
“Go to the well and fetch water from there,” replied the woman.
Duly, the man went to the well, but he found the water that he drew from there to be very bitter to his taste. However, with no other means to satisfy his thirst, he drank from it.
The man marvelled at the woman’s ability to live in such conditions. “How hard it must be you to live by this manner,” he remarked to her.
“Then tell me how it is in your country?” the woman enquired.
“In the city where I dwell there are many broad boulevards, which are lined with towering trees. Where the boulevards cross are marble-paved squares, each having a lively fountain at its centre,” the pilgrim explained.
“Rich meats and viands are sold in the marketplace, along with delightful fish from the oceans and luscious fruit. We drink pure water, and dwell in villas that are built of stone.”
“This is what I have heard,” replied the woman. “But is it not also true that you are ruled by a tyrannical sultan? I am told that if you displease him, or act against his command, he will take away your goods and leave you homeless. You pay for your luxury foods and frivolous life with the corrupt poison of tyranny, but here there is safety and freedom–a healthy recipe. I wager that it is better to be free from tyranny, eating and drinking what the desert provides, and living off her generosity. Do you not know that next to having the true faith, safety and health are the greatest of all Allah’s bounties?”
I, who narrate this story, perceive that what the old woman observed is the just rule of the sultan, who is God’s vicar on earth. In previous times, it was not necessary for the sultan to rule so viciously, because the people need only see him to fear him. But this is a wicked and depraved generation, and one for which a sultan must be accorded the utmost respect. Were a weak sultan set over this people, calamity would surely come upon the land.
As the proverb declares, “One hundred years of the sultan’s tyranny, rather than just one year of the tyranny of the people, who fight one over another.” When people turn to fighting among themselves, God appoints a despot to rule over them.