"I COUNT religion but a childish toy, And hold there is no sin
but ignorance," the character of Machevill says at the start of
The Jew of Malta. In the Royal Shakespeare Company's
finely turned production of Christopher Marlowe's classic, the
director, Justin Audibert, is so pleased with the lines that he has
the English incarnation of Machiavelli say them twice, at the
beginning and the end of his prologue.
Certainly, religion does not come very well out of Marlowe's
portrait of 16th-century Malta, where arrogant and sanctimonious
papish Catholics, infidel Mohammedans, and a perfidious Jew compete
to out-nasty one another with a succession of eye-for-an-eyes. The
Muslims emerge least worst, but it is a close run thing between the
Christians and the Jew - although even an atheist such as Marlowe
was not brave enough at a time of Tudor turmoil to include badly
behaving Protestants - something he was latter to rectify in
But is religion the cause or merely the symptom here? Tony Blair
has recently reiterated the standard line that "It is not religion
or faith per se that causes or foments conflict." Announcing his
new job as chairman of the European Council on Tolerance and
Reconciliation (ECTR), he wrote last week identifying the problem
rather as "the abuse of religion, which then becomes a mask behind
which those bent on death and destruction all too often hide".
Mr Blair's new post provoked a certain amount of scorn and
scoffing on social media. His culpability over the Iraq War was
cited; so was his post-prime ministerial role as a Middle East
peace envoy, which bore no apparent fruit and led to accusations
that he was biased in favour of the Israelis - something that this
new job with a body funded by a Jewish billionaire confirmed in the
eyes of his critics.
Of course, it would be faulty logic to suggest that just because
Mr Blair has been wrong on one issue - spectacularly so on Iraq -
he must be wrong about everything else. But there are other reasons
to wonder whether the ECTR's calls for tougher laws on extremism
and racial and religious hatred are a good idea. Among its policies
is a campaign to persuade European countries to pass laws to
criminalise Holocaust denial.
There is no doubt that the law can reshape attitudes.
Legislation on seatbelts and drink-driving has shown that. But what
works with comparatively superficial social behaviour may not be
the right approach to problems that seem more deeply engrained in
our religions. Moreover, the law of unintended consequences
applies: legislation to protect religion can become a tool of
oppression, as blasphemy laws have shown throughout the world.
Religion may just be a badge in the promotion of intolerance.
Certainly, more genocidal violence has sprung from nationalism than
faith. But what Marlowe's play shows is how viscerally such
violence is rooted. There may well be other sins than ignorance.
But ignorance is surely a massive one.
The Jew of Malta is running in repertoire at the Swan
Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 8 September.