It is going to be a long time before the Fadel Shaker enigma is solved or forgotten. The Lebanese singer acquired fame and fortune in a matter of years and then turned into a jihadist supporter of the Salafist sheikh Ahmad al-Assir. Suddenly, he was a wanted man, pursued by the authorities, after vanishing with his “mentor” following their defeat at the hands of the Lebanese Army on June 24, in Sidon, in south Lebanon.
The path Shaker decided to walk shocked the Lebanese people. Lebanon had never before witnessed one of its singers rediscover his religion and return to the faith. Before Shaker, the stories of TV stars or movie actors who suddenly appeared veiled, declaring that they were forsaking the world of entertainment, had been unique to Egypt, published on the pages of magazines found on the counters at beauty salons and read by the Lebanese for fun.
The Lebanese had only experienced one similar precedent, though a bit different from that of Fadel Shaker. Antoine al-Khawli was a Lebanese singer famous in Lebanon and most other Arab countries in the mid-1980s and into the late 1990s. He went by the stage name Rabih al-Khawli. At the peak of his fame and fortune, two painful incidents befell Khawli: He lost one of his brothers to illness, and a car accident claimed the life of another person in his life. These tragedies changed the man. Antoine, aka Rabih, took an extended sabbatical from the world of singing and went looking for answers to the meaning of life and the mysteries of pain and death.
Khawli's retreat soon turned into a way of life. He quietly left the worlds of art and performance, without a declaration, speech or interview. In the late 1990s, he joined a Maronite monastery that trains apprentices on Mount Lebanon. At that point, Rabih became known as Father Antoine. Ten-plus years have passed since he took his religious vows and made a decision to spend his time in prayer, worship, poverty, asceticism and isolation.
Fadel Shaker, however, has shown the Lebanese another side of the equation that they had never heard of or known. In 2005, Shaker, who hails from Sidon, was one of the most popular emerging Lebanese singers in the Arab world. He was known for his exquisite voice and singing style and focused on romance, love and passion. In short order, Shaker experienced the transition from the slums of the southern capital to fortune and fame. Around that time, Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, a Sunni, was assassinated. Shaker is also a Sunni. After Hariri's death and the subsequent turmoil of events, including rising tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in different countries in the region, rumors began circulating in the media that Shaker had a fundamentalist brother who led a group of Palestinian jihadists in the Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp, near Sidon.
In 2008, news of a violent conflict between Shaker and Ragheb Alama, a famous Lebanese Shiite singer, spread like wildfire. As the story goes, the dispute, stoked by a political disagreement, began on a plane that both singers happened to be on. Their conflict intensified after Alama allegedly received death threats from Shaker in summer 2009, and a group of armed men tried to break into Alama’s house. It was then that the Lebanese people saw another face of the famously romantic singer.
Shaker did not leave his fans impatiently waiting. As soon as Assir launched his jihadist movement in Sidon, Shaker became his shadow. He grew a thick beard, just like the other Salafists, and became Assir’s right hand man in the jihadist group. Funding the movement with the fortune he had earned from his singing career, Shaker became the movement's media star and its most provocative voice. He soon announced that he was quitting singing altogether; his speeches then focused solely on his enemies, the infidels, whom he often described as pigs and threatened to kill. It is no coincidence that Shaker's last appearance, available on YouTube, was from a hideout for Assir in Sidon, before the army burst in. He bragged about his men having killed two soldiers and promised that the best is yet to come. Shaker soon vanished, however, and took second place on the Lebanese authorities’ most wanted list of dangerous and notorious criminals. First on the list is his mentor, Assir.
Most Lebanese are still wondering what could possibly have turned a rich, famous and successful singer into a wanted, extremist Salafist? Khawli left the world of singing to worship God, pray in a hermitage and seek peace of mind, but what could have pushed Shaker to find God in violence, hatred and murder? How could a person who had discovered the pleasures of this world leave everything behind for a small alley in a neighborhood near Sidon no more than a few meters long?
There have been similar cases in the world of Islamic jihadism, but they tend to involve two things that have typically driven suicidal jihadism: the Palestinian cause, which is a sacred call for people treading that path, and enmity toward the United States — considered the “devil incarnate” — and the war against it imbued with religious fervor. This is how suicidal Islamists linked their affiliations to “major causes,” seemingly so irrational that they render the behavior of jihadists inconceivable. Shaker, however, did not choose Palestine or America. Instead, he chose to fight a small war in a narrow alley in which he spent all the savings of his previous life and, apparently, his next one.
This is the enigma of Fadel Shaker, and it will be a long time before it is forgotten or understood.