On May 15 2017, the Italian Court of Cassation, the highest court of appeal, issued a verdict ruling that Sikh men in Italy cannot carry the kirpan, the sacred dagger that represents one of the five holy customs Sikhs must observe.
The appeal had been lodged by Jatinder Singh, a 32-year old Indian living and working in Goito, in the northern Italian province of Mantova. Singh – part of a Sikh community which is essential to Italy’s Parmesan industry –- was ordered to pay €2,000 when local police stopped him and confiscated his kirpan because of a law that prohibits the carrying of knives and weapons outside one’s house without a legitimate reason.
But in their verdict, the judges did not just act on the basis of Italy’s legal system. Crucially, they also ventured into unchartered terrain by commenting on how Italian society should look and what its culture and values should be – something that must be a matter of political debate, not decided in strictly legal terms.
Today, more than 60,000 Sikhs live in Italy, the second-largest community in Europe after the UK. They are mainly concentrated in Italy’s northern provinces, where the hot humid climate and flat rural landscape resemble Punjab, the Indian region which most of the Sikhs come from.
Farmers in India, these Sikhs also become farmers in Italy and are employed particularly in one of the country’s most famous cheese-making industries: Parmesan. Once the produce of a solely Italian labour force, the industry now relies on immigrant workers, like many other European countries. In 2015, the BBC reported local producers saying that if it were not for the hardworking Sikhs rising at 4am to milk cows twice a day, seven days a week, Italy’s Parmesan production would be at risk.
The verdict of the Court of Cassation shocked the Sikh community, which regards itself as peaceful and well integrated in Italy. So it’s not surprising that they are now contemplating various responses, from an appeal to the European Court of Justice to the most drastic one of all: leaving the country.
Since the decision of the Court of Cassation, Sikh men in Italy now live in constant fear of being stopped and searched by the Italian police due to religious observance. So it is important to critically scrutinise the cultural reasons given by the judges in justifying their verdict.
Over the past few decades, as observed by political sociologist Christian Joppke, courts of justice in various European countries and the USA have been instrumental in expanding immigrants’ rights with their verdicts, often against the restrictive measures put in place by national governments in relation to welfare programmes, civil service employment, professional licenses and scholarships.
Italy’s supreme court decision signals an important reversal of this trend. But it is not just a legal matter. And Italy is not the first country to forbid the wearing of the kirpan in Europe – Denmark already did so in 2006. The most interesting aspect of the Italian verdict is the cultural justification the judges used to support their legal decision.
Shining a light on their arguments, the Court of Cassation starts with a fair appraisal of what at first sight might appear as the kind of statement that should characterise any culturally diverse society:
In a multi-ethnic society, the living together among subjects of different ethnicities necessarily requires the identification of a common core recognised by both the majority society and the immigrants.
Integration is a two-way process, which means the majority and minority communities experience a transformation and work together towards the shaping of the society of which they are all part.
But this was not exactly what the judges of the Court of Cassation had in mind. For them, integration struggles with an “insurmountable limit” in the “respect of human rights and of the legal framework of the hosting society”. In other words, immigrants must change and assimilate, Italy will not bend to accommodate all cultural or religious observances of immigrants.
Italy has its own law, which judges believe cannot be brought into question regardless of the demographic and cultural changes Italy has been experiencing for the past 30 years. So they maintain that “it is essential for the immigrant to conform his values to those of the Western world into which he has freely decided to incorporate himself”.
Besides the gender-bias tone, this carries two problematic points. First, there is no general agreement on what “Western values” are (and the very notion of West/Western is also open to debate, particularly in relation to its colonial legacy). Should a forward-looking society not list cultural and religious pluralism among these values?
Yet, the Italian Court of Cassation seems to instil doubt here. In another passage of their verdict, the judges talk of “the uniqueness of the cultural and legal fabric of our country”. Not much notion of cultural pluralism in that statement. Italy has a unique culture – and anyone who arrives on its shores simply has to fit into the Italian way of life.
But here comes the zinger: what shall we make of all those Sikh Italians who did not migrate to Italy, but were born and grew up there? Unlike their parents, these people, clearly, did not “freely decided to incorporate” themselves into the country. They are not immigrants, but “new Italians”, as my research has largely documented. Unfortunately, by putting all the “diverse” people into the same basket, the Court of Cassation seems blind to the country’s changing population.
It is interesting to note that the court’s verdict has generated little political debate, including among the centre-left parties such as the Partito Democratico – traditionally more sensitive to immigrant issues. This seems to suggest that these parties in Italy, like elsewhere in Europe, share a form of immigrant incorporation which scholars call “civic integration”, that is, integration demanded on the basis of legal principles, but which in reality stands for the defence of the existing culture of the majority of Italians.
If it were not so serious, perhaps we could joke that losing Italy’s most famous cheese to a quarrel over a knife is really not worth it.