My take on ‘Islam and Democracy’

Democracy should not be enjoyed only once every five years. Democracy should not be just about voting in the elections. Democracy should not be just about choosing 798 representatives to sit in parliament or the various state assemblies. Democracy should also be about playing a role in how the country is run and about deciding what laws are formulated.


Raja Petra Kamarudin

First read Enizahura Abdul Aziz’s article on ‘Islam and Democracy(HERE) before reading my take on the same subject.

The term ‘democracy’ originated from the 5th century BCE Greek word δημοκρατία (dēmokratía), meaning ‘rule of the people’. Dēmokratía was coined from δῆμος (dêmos), meaning ‘people’, and κράτος (kratos), meaning ‘power’ or ‘rule’.

This was basically to denote the political system that existed in the Greek city-states about 2,500 years ago.

Basically, democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens participate equally — either directly or through elected representatives (wakil rakyat) — in the development and creation of laws.

These laws, of course, must include social, economic and cultural considerations that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination or self-rule. That is why democracy can only exist through independence (meaning self-determination or self-rule) and not if the country is under colonial rule. 

Hence you can also say that pre-Merdeka Malaya was not a democratic state since there was no self-determination or self-rule and there were no elections to send the peoples’ representatives or wakil rakyat to parliament and the state assemblies.

The layman’s perception of democracy is mainly regarding the elections. And that is why people like Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad will insist that Malaysia is a democratic country since we have elections in Malaysia. Only if Malaysia did not have elections would it not be a democratic country.

In short, democracy equals elections. And once we fulfil that requirement of holding elections then the democratic process is complete. Then we can no longer say that the country is not democratic.

This is an oversimplified understanding and interpretation of democracy. Whatever comes later, after the elections, does not affect or erode democracy one bit. You send your representatives to parliament or the state assemblies and that is the end of the story. You have achieved democracy. Whatever thereafter does not matter because democracy is still intact in spite of whatever that may happen after the government is formed.

Malaysia has chosen the British Westminster system of government. And that means we choose our government through parliamentary and state elections. We send 222 representatives to parliament and 576 representatives to the various state assemblies. And these 798 representatives are the peoples’ voice. Hence we call them wakil rakyat.

If this is all there is to democracy then the people have only one job to do every five years. And once that job is done the people no longer have any role to play. Thereafter it is the job of the 798 people we have sent to government. And if they fail to perform the job we expect them to do then we sack them come the next election and choose a whole new lot of representatives.

Does this then mean democracy has been served? I suppose if democracy is just about going to the ballot box once every five years to vote, then democracy has certainly been served. We have given 798 people the mandate to do what they like. And if we do not like what they do we have to just sit and wait for another five years for the next election to show them we did not like what they did over the five years that we gave them the mandate to run the country.

Democracy should not be enjoyed only once every five years. Democracy should not be just about voting in the elections. Democracy should not be just about choosing 798 representatives to sit in parliament or the various state assemblies. Democracy should also be about playing a role in how the country is run and about deciding what laws are formulated.

The politicians will ask us to not ‘interfere’ in the party’s internal matters (at least that is what some politicians are telling us). But what do they mean by ‘interfere’? The candidates who contest the elections do so on a party ticket. The party has to endorse and approve these candidates. And those not endorsed or approved cannot contest the elections unless they want to do so as independent candidates — and 99 out of 100 times will lose the election.

Hence the party, rather than the individuals, represent the people. The people may appear to be voting for the individual candidates. However, in reality, the people are actually voting for the party. Hence it is not the 798 individuals who are representing the people in parliament or the state assemblies but the political parties that they belong to and who endorsed and approved the candidacy of these 798 individuals.

So, when these 798 individuals make a decision, are these decisions based on what the people want or based on what their respective parties want? Of course it is based on what their parties want. Hence, although we call them wakil rakyat, in reality they are wakil parti.

Can, therefore, elections be considered democracy at work? That is what politicians would like us to believe: that since Malaysia holds elections then Malaysia is a democracy. But democracy is more than just about holding elections. Democracy is also about respecting the will of the people.

And that brings me to the issue of ‘Islam and Democracy’, the subject I really want to talk about. Enizahura Abdul Aziz and many Muslims would like us to believe that Islam is compatible with democracy. If democracy is merely about going to the ballot box once every five years then I would agree: Islam is compatible with democracy. However, as I said, democracy is more than just about going to the ballot box.

Democracy means the will of the people must prevail. In Islam, only the will of God can prevail. The will of the people have no place in the bigger scheme of things.

Let me raise a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say the government does a poll and more than 51% of the people vote in favour of freedom of religion. More than 51% of the people feel that democracy needs to be translated to freedom of religion. So they vote for freedom of religion and, to these people, freedom of religion also means freedom to leave Islam or freedom for Muslims to convert to Christianity.

Will those people who propagate democracy or those who say that Islam and democracy are compatible agree with this? More than 51% of the people voted in favour of this. And since Malaysia is a democracy and more than 51% want this then this should become law. But how many ‘democrats’ would agree to this when they believe that Islam forbids apostasy?

In the end, God’s will and not the will of the people will prevail. Hence democracy needs to be ignored in favour of what they believe God wants. Democracy can only be allowed as long as it does not violate the will of God.

Hence we do not have democracy in all matters. We have democracy in only some matters. Hence, also, we do not have absolute democracy but only partial democracy.

Democracy does not exist in matters involving the political parties. The will of the party comes first. Democracy does not exist in matters involving religion. The will of God comes first. And the list goes on. Democracy needs to be ignored because there is another principle higher than the principle of democracy.

This is the reality of the whole thing and is a reality we have no choice but to accept. We are led to believe that we enjoy democracy in Malaysia. The reality, however, is that there are many things that we are denied because absolute democracy would jeopardise the interests of the government, the politicians, the religionists, the Malays, the Chinese, the Indians, the ‘lain-lain’, Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese education and language, Tamil schools, and whatnot.

That is what I have been trying to tell you for so many years and is why I am opposed to both Barisan Nasional as well as Pakatan Rakyat. Both do not understand or respect democracy although they keep talking about it and try to portray that they are fighting for and are upholding democracy.

The solution, therefore, you will say, is to change the government. Really? Do you mean ‘change the government’ or ‘change the party in power’? You may change the party in power but that does not mean you are changing the government.

The new party in power will still be the same old government. And this old government led by the new party will still not allow its 798 representatives in parliament and the various state assemblies to become wakil rakyat — they will still be wakil parti — and Muslims will still not be allowed to leave Islam or convert to Christianity.

And you call that democracy? And you think that changing the party in power will allow us more democracy? Well, this is where you and I part company in understanding the true meaning of democracy and also in understanding the incompatibility between Islam and democracy. And if you do not think so then ask Anwar Ibrahim and see whether he can agree with the concept of independent wakil rakyat and apostasy for Muslims.