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Dissociated Identities. Ethnicity, Religion, and Class in an Indonesian Society.

Having read so much about the Toba Batak in recent years, it is gratifying to find a well-written, thoroughly researched study of the Karo of North Sumatra. Dissociated Identities; Ethnicity, Religion and Class in an Indonesian Society by Rita Smith Kipp deals with the place of the Karo people in the modern state. It is also concerned with their ethnic identity in a society where ethnic differences are played down in order to create an overall "national cultural" identity, but at the same time are celebrated by the state in order to mask the cultural and political dominance of the Javanese. Dissociated Identities is ultimately a study of what Indonesia's state policies mean to the Karo who live in the cities, and to those who remain in the Sumatran homeland. It examines the way that Karo are forced to deal with religious pluralism, and with the pull of tradition against the pull to be "modern", a problem further compounded by the differences in wealth that have developed among the Karo.

Although the book is, ostensibly, about the Karo, by selecting ethnicity, religion and class as the important dimensions of Karo identity, the reader is introduced to much broader issues of Indonesian state policies as Kipp explores the links between identity and state power. Ultimately she sets out to argue that, over time, some important aspects of Karo identity have "pulled apart from each other", becoming conceptually dissociated.

Kipp begins the study by examining the formation of Karo ethnic and religious identities historically, in order to seek the beginnings of their dissociation by labeling. This identity, she argues, can be understood in terms of their relations with powerful outsiders and state centres. First their relations with the Malay sultanates and then a colonial bureaucracy and missionaries, and finally the new nation, have all helped define Karo ethnicity.

The "Karo" came to be defined in terms of oppositions to, and contrasts with, the Muslims, the European and the state: primitive versus civilized, heathen versus Muslim. From the Karo point of view, their five clan system (Merga si Lima) and the rules of cross-cousin marriage meant that they regarded Muslim marriages as incestuous. Karo who married people in the prohibited category had to leave the Karo and became outsiders. So, on the one hand, the Malays defined the Karo in terms of cannibalism and primitiveness, while the Karo, on the other, defined the Muslims in terms of their "incest". But because the two groups were not conversing as equals, the Malays being the more powerful group - due to their control of trade among other things - it is the Batak who have had to live down the reputation for cannibalism, rather than the Malays for incest.

The Karo have long regarded themselves as a separate suku (ethnic group), distinct from the Malays and other Batak, and have always conceptualized and defined themselves in terms of the five clans, and referred to themselves as Merga si Lima. This system consisting basically of wife-giving and wife-taking relationships, and their concomitant obligations toward each other, are termed anakberu-kalimbubu, the anakberu being the "inferior" wife-takers, the kalimbubu the "superior" wife-givers. The appellation Karo, Kipp suggests, is a label that came to be applied through two interrelated processes: missionary and colonial territorial delineation, and heightened competition between the Karo and other Batak groups, the Toba in particular. The Batak area was divided up between the Dutch Reform and German Lutheran churches. Their policy of reinforcing the different Batak languages at the expense of Malay (partly to preclude the possibility of Islamic conversion), together with conversion to a specific denomination, further highlighted ethnic differences between different Batak groups and between the Batak and Malay. Furthermore, administrative boundaries cut across the Karo area, and an influx of Toba into the Karo area resulted in increased competition with the better educated Toba. This led to the Karo stressing their separate identity, and the formation of a separate Karo church in the 1930s.

To understand Karo identity, the author goes on to examine some of the theories of how the modem Indonesian state manages diversity. Her central argument is that "the transaction of cultural and religious elements 'mitigates' the political impact of both, while each diminishes the impact of class". She is ultimately demonstrating how Karo manage certain strategies in order to maintain their ethnic identity. She goes on to point out that the Karo, in common with other Indonesian groups, see ethnicity and religion more readily than class. This blindness to class difference fits well with the Karo's own perceived self interests concerning upward mobility and progress. For the Karo, the ideal kinship solidarity underlying their ethnic consciousness is, of necessity, impervious to distinctions of wealth and power. Furthermore, by separating religious life from issues of kinship and ethnicity, they guard these aspects of their identity from the potentially divisive issues of faith.

Indonesian society is, however, undergoing a great deal of change, and the Karo, too, are experiencing changes that impinge upon their identity and definition as an ethnic group. Although the kinship principle remains important in the conceptualization of Karo identity, the anakberu-kalimbubu tie is losing its value as a means of organizing labour, particularly among wealthy, urban Karo who can afford to employ help. Furthermore, young Karo are increasingly likely to marry people from other ethnic groups, further reducing this link. This is not to say, however, that kinship is losing its importance, for wealthy urban Karo find themselves playing host to numerous "kin", fictional and real, who come to the urban centres to study or work. The number of kin an individual has, is now seen as an index of one's success. Certainly wealth allows families to see each other across great distances (Jakarta and the Karo homeland, for example), but it may also strain anakberu-kalimbubu relationships between those who find themselves in very different financial circumstances. These differences have been exacerbated by the fact that, whereas in the past wealth was channelled into the marrying of many wives and the distribution of land to relatives (a sharing of wealth, so to speak), now wealthy Karo tend to live in the cities where they are no longer in the same face to face relationships. Furthermore, young Karo growing up in urban settings often do not get the opportunity to learn about avoidance rules between kin, and other subtleties of their culture. However, Kipp believes that, at least for the time being, the bonds of kinship and the benefits of modem transportation still hold Karo society together across urban contexts.

The last few chapters of the study concentrate on the question of ethnic pride, and the place of religious affiliation in ethnic identity. It becomes apparent that outside of the Karo homeland ethnic identity is more important, it cuts across religious differences. As Kipp writes: "Ethnicity happens outside of Karoland". Karo ethnic solidarity in places like Jakarta and Medan draws much of its emotional power from the conceptualized familial order of kin terms. Anyone who identifies themselves as Karo will be fitted into the anakberu-kalimbubu structure. At the same time, however, differences of wealth can have an important bearing on whether Karo can fully participate in ethnic displays, associations and politics. Certainly the Karo as a group have achieved a great deal since the colonial period, but education, wealth and success are not evenly distributed. Ethnic pride and politics appear to concern mostly those well-to-do Karo who live outside Karoland, and the audience for their ethnic displays is the wider Indonesian society. By bringing Karo society outside of Karoland these wealthy Karo seek to build "big men" reputations for themselves inside the Karo community.

Regarding religion, Kipp argues that although the criteria for being Karo no longer rests on religious contrast, ethnicity is not completely dissociated from issues of religion. In a predominantly Muslim nation, the majority of Karo chose to become Christian, and the Karo Batak Protestant Church (GBKP) is an explicitly ethnic church. Muslims who live in urban centres find it easier to become assimilated into the local Muslim community, and it is easier for them to marry other Muslims from different ethnic backgrounds. Religious community and ethnic community are generally dissociated for Karo Muslims in a way that is not true for Karo Christians of the GBKP. In addition, there is still a group of Karo who adhere to the old practice of spirit propitiation. However, these Karo are almost exclusively located in the Karo homeland and the adherents are almost all poor and uneducated. Kipp concludes that Muslim Karo politicians and Christian Karo businessmen are the agents that link homeland and migrant communities by pouring wealth from the centre back into the Karo periphery, thus displaying their wealth and faith in their home villages.

Kipp's study is perhaps the most thorough study available on the modem Karo people and their ethnic identity. Undoubtedly the outcome of many years of research, both in Karoland and in Indonesian cities, it deals with some very confusing and complex issues. However, the author has explained and interpreted them in a clear and concise manner that makes the book a pleasure to read.

Sian Jay University of Hull
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Author:Kipp, Rita Smith
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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