The “fault” of the grand ayatollah Sistani – in the eyes of his enemies – is that of being the most authoritative and consistent supporter of a vision of Islamic “quietism,” according to which the master teaches theology, law, and morality, and asks that the principles of Islam be respected in public life, but does not demand political power for himself, nor presumes to exercise coercive control over it.
This current of thought has always been the prevalent one in Najaf. The Iranian ayatollah Khomeini, who lived in this city from 1965 to 1978 and maintained the opposite view, was completely isolated.
Khomeini’s thesis, to which he gave form in 1979 with his theocratic revolution in Iran, was that “only a good society can create good believers.” And he conferred upon the experts of Qur’anic law the political power necessary to engineer the perfect society.
Sistani, on the contrary, maintains that “only good citizens can create a good society.” And he rejects any idea of theocracy.
Sistani is enunciating a view which thoughtful people across history have come to, implicit in Plato and Aristotle, explicit in much philosophy since, enunciated directly by the American founders (who nonetheless set up as many traps as possible to prevent untrammeled action by the government). With that point of view, Islam becomes something that is approachable, something that might become worth understanding, as opposed to merely the latest incarnation of the death-cult that it has shown itself so spectacularly to be capable of.