No, of course, I don't mean that when the white smoke eventually does arise from the Sistine Chapel--which may conceivably be soon--the next Pontifex Maximus will be the Grand Ayatollah from Najaf. Rather, I'm referring to historical similarities that may--if all goes well in Iraq--exist between 76 year-old Sistani and 84 year-old Karol Jozef Wojytla, dba Pope John Paul II.
Both, to begin with, are conservative (how conservative Sistani is can be seen by a visit to his website, and a peek at the "Q & A" section). Both came from countries not normally associated with their positions--John Paul was the first non-Italian in 455 years to ascend the Throne of St. Peter, while Sistani is an Iranian sitting atop the Hawza religious establishment. Both survived numerous assassination attempts and plots. During his reign, Pope John Paul traveled over half a million miles to scores of countries across the globe, while Sistani almost never leaves his backstreet quarters in Najaf...all right, there are some differences between the two religious leaders.
But the important point is this: the Pope and the Ayatollah both represent freedom. Not just abstract bromides about "religious freedom," but active, political, muscular freedom--freedom standing up and thrusting its fist in the face of tyranny. Lech Walesa, who initiated the revolution that toppled the Soviet Union, has described how the Pope's first pilgrimage to his native country forged a sense of solidarity among the Polish people. In the same way, when Sistani in October declared it the "religious duty" of Iraqis to vote, he, too, provided a spiritual context--if not sanction--for the yearnings of millions of people to rise up and demand control of their destinies.
(If the Ayatollah's fatwa was a little on the prosaic side, comments by his main spokesman, Ahmad al-Safi, were not: "Participation has an obligation based in religious law because the transgressor will enter hell." No doubt the Christian Coalition of America is viewing this get-out-the-vote tactic with interest.)
And they did vote, millions of them, enough to guide, and perhaps dominate, Iraqi politics. And by doing so, they set an example Muslims throughout the Middle East cannot ignore--especially those in neighboring Iran. There is much discussion of Iraq falling under the sway of the Islamic Republc--but the opposite is possible: that as the center of Shi'ism shifts back to Najaf, so, too, will the thoughts and aspirations of the Iranian people. Taking a page from the Rightly Guided Prophet Isa--who once prophesied to the infidels that the "meek will inherit the earth"--Sistani's Quietism, rather than Khomeini's velayat-i-faqih may prove the ultimate beneficiary of the Shia's destiny.
We live in an age of conservative progressives. Pope John Paul was perhaps the first, followed by Reagan and George W. Bush. Despite the traditional--one could say reactionary--aspects of many of their beliefs, they carried forward the torch that liberals once bore for most of the 20th century before their energies flagged: for individual rights, freedom and democracy. (There are battles we need to wage for freedom on the economic front, but that's another topic.) Now we can add another, most improbable, figure to this pantheon: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, an old Iranian man whose actual form few Iraqis have actually seen--but whose influence reached into their hearts and souls.
UPDATE: Will at Global Stuff has additional insights into Sistani and the Shia.