Muslim at the heart of an Indonesian Christian office

Greg Soetomo

Even in a Muslim country like Indonesia, it is normal for the employees of a Catholic magazine to be overwhelmingly Catholic, and this has been my experience in the office where I am chief editor. Indeed, the organisation needs a Catholic atmosphere to get its work done.

One worker, however, is exceptional. She is a strong, middle-aged woman with eight children, with a different religious background—she is a devout Muslim who prays five times a day. She frequently says “Alhamdulillah”, and with a scarf wrapped around her head she definitely stands out among our other female employees. Short and stout, she works industriously on simple, clerical pieces. She will offer coffee or tea to everyone she feels needs her assistance. When lunch time comes, and the people want to have their meals, she will note each person’s order and buy it from the vendors nearby—she’s always willing to help. Her name is Khaeroni; we call her Mak Eroh.

Whenever there is an announcement that a boss is taking leave, the office people say, “No problem, that won’t make any difference to us. It will be difficult, but if Mak Eroh was absent, we’d be in real trouble.” Her cheerful and amusing manner makes her the favourite of the office.

Mak Eroh is Betawi—a native of the greater Jakarta area. The Betawi are now marginalised by migrants from many parts of the country. This process of marginalisation has led the Betawi people to group and form militant communities which ideologically support sharia (Islamic) law and struggle aggressively to eradicate any illicit business (casinos, drugs, prostitution, nightclubs) in the city.

Mak Eroh has told me about her life, her children, and her future. She described her family’s hard life, and how it had been tough to earn a living. She told me her husband had had a dozen mistresses—one day, she said, she fought one of these women in the market before the crowd. “Shame on me,” she laughed.

She is very grateful to this church-based publication for giving her a job. The money she earns enables her to support some of her family members, and she often has tears in her eyes when she speaks of her good fortune. In our conversations, she shares her concern and anxiety, and also her faith and hope. Despite our different beliefs, she can hold a deep and sincere conversation.

When I reflect on our conversations, I am also struck by the difference between what I see in daily life, and what I read and watch in the media about Muslim militants—the clash between Christians and Muslims, fundamentalism, or terrorism. Every age has its own false ideas. In our time, it is the notion Islam is inextricably linked to hostility and aggression.

My encounter with Mak Eroh has drawn me to look more deeply for the truth of the matter. Just as a small minority of extremists cannot act on behalf of Islam, neither can a single person like Khaeroni represent her religion. I can understand that a pious and kind-hearted Muslim like her is quite a different reality from the Muslim militants and their cause. These realities need to be explained and understood in the context of many different factors, not simply through the lens of their religion.

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