Author Salman Rushdie stabbed at conference in New York

Salman Rushdie, whose novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ drew death threats from the Iranian leader in the 1980s, was stabbed in the neck and abdomen on Friday by a man who rushed onto the stage as he that the author was about to give a talk in western New York.

A bloodied Rushdie, 75, was airlifted to hospital and underwent surgery. His agent, Andrew Wylie, said the writer was on a ventilator on Friday night, with a damaged liver, severed nerves in his arm and an eye he was at risk of losing.

Police have identified the assailant as Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, New Jersey. He was arrested at the scene and awaiting arraignment. Matar was born a decade after “The Satanic Verses” was published. The motive for the attack was unclear, State Police Maj. Eugene Staniszewski said.

An Associated Press reporter saw the assailant confront Rushdie on stage at the Chautauqua facility and stab or punch him 10 to 15 times as he was introduced. The author was pushed or fell to the ground and the man was arrested.

Dr Martin Haskell, a doctor who was among those rushing to help, described Rushdie’s injuries as “serious but recoverable”.

Author Salman Rushdie is treated after being attacked during a conference, Friday, August 12, 2022, at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, NY, about 75 miles south of Buffalo. (Joshua Goodman/AP)

Event moderator Henry Reese, 73, co-founder of an organization that provides residencies for writers facing persecution, was also attacked. Reese suffered a facial injury and was treated and discharged from a hospital, police said. He and Rushdie were to discuss the United States as a haven for exiled writers and other artists.

A state trooper and a county sheriff’s deputy were assigned to the Rushdie conference, and state police say the trooper made the arrest. But after the attack, some longtime visitors to the center wondered why security at the event wasn’t beefed up, given decades of threats against Rushdie and a bounty on his head offering more than 3 million dollars to anyone who kills him.

Rabbi Charles Savenor was among the approximately 2,500 people in attendance. Amid gasps, onlookers were ushered out of the outdoor amphitheater.

The assailant ran onto the platform “and started punching Mr. Rushdie. At first you’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ And then it became very clear within seconds that he was beaten,” Savenor said. He said the attack lasted about 20 seconds.

Another onlooker, Kathleen James, said the attacker was dressed in black, with a black mask.

“We thought it was maybe part of a set up to show that there is still a lot of controversy around this author. But it became obvious in a few seconds” that it was not the case, she said.

Matar, like other visitors, had obtained passes to enter the 750-acre grounds of the Chautauqua Institution, said Michael Hill, president of the nonprofit education and resort center.

The suspect’s attorney, public defender Nathaniel Barone, said he was still gathering information and declined to comment. Matar’s house was blocked by the authorities.

The stabbing reverberated from the quiet town of Chautauqua to the United Nations, which issued a statement expressing horror at UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and stressing that freedom of expression and opinion should not be fought with violence.

People gather at an evening vigil, pray and observe a moment of silence after an attack on author Salman Rushdie in Chautauqua, NY Rushdie, whose novel "The Satanic Verses"  received death threats from Iran in the 1980s, was stabbed as he prepared to give a lecture in western New York.  (Joshua Goodman/AP)
People gather at an evening vigil, pray and observe a moment of silence after an attack on author Salman Rushdie in Chautauqua, NY Rushdie was stabbed as he prepared to give a talk in the western New York. (Joshua Goodman/AP)

From the White House, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called the attack “reprehensible” and said the Biden administration wished Rushdie a speedy recovery.

“This act of violence is appalling,” Sullivan said in a statement. “We are grateful to the good citizens and first responders for helping Mr. Rushdie so quickly after the attack and to law enforcement for their prompt and efficient work, which continues.”

Rushdie was a prominent spokesman for free speech and liberal causes, and the literary world recoiled from what Ian McEwan, a novelist and friend of Rushdie’s, described as “an attack on freedom of thought and expression”.

“Salman has been an inspiring advocate for persecuted writers and journalists around the world,” McEwan said in a statement. “He is a fiery and generous spirit, a man of immense talent and courage and he will not be deterred.”

PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said the organization is not aware of any comparable act of violence against a literary writer in the United States. Rushdie was once president of the group, which champions writers and free speech.

Rushdie’s 1988 novel was considered blasphemous by many Muslims, who viewed a character as an insult to the Prophet Muhammad, among other objections. Across the Muslim world, often violent protests erupted against Rushdie, who was born in India to a Muslim family.

At least 45 people were killed in riots over the book, including 12 people in Rushdie’s hometown of Mumbai. In 1991, a Japanese translator of the book was stabbed to death and an Italian translator survived a knife attack. In 1993, the book’s Norwegian publisher was shot three times and survived.

The book was banned in Iran, where the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, in 1989 calling for Rushdie’s death. Khomeini died the same year.

Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has never issued a fatwa to revoke the edict, although Iran in recent years has not focused on the writer.

Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday’s attack, which was the subject of an evening newscast on Iranian state television.

Law enforcement officers stand guard outside the Chautauqua facility after author Salman Rushdie was attacked during a conference, Friday, August 12, 2022, in Chautauqua, NY (Joshua Goodman/AP)
Law enforcement officers stand guard outside the Chautauqua facility after author Salman Rushdie was attacked during a conference, Friday, August 12, 2022, in Chautauqua, NY (Joshua Goodman/AP)

Death threats and the bounty drove Rushdie into hiding under a UK government protection scheme, which included a 24-hour armed guard. Rushdie emerged after nine years in solitary confinement and cautiously resumed more of public appearances, maintaining his outspoken criticism of religious extremism as a whole.

He said at a conference in New York in 2012 that terrorism is really the art of fear.

“The only way to defeat it is to decide not to be afraid,” he said.

Anti-Rushdie sentiment persisted long after Khomeini’s decree. The Index on Censorship, an organization promoting free speech, said funds had been raised to increase the reward for his murder as recently as 2016.

An Associated Press reporter who visited the Tehran office of the 15 Khordad Foundation, which paid millions for Rushdie’s bounty, found it closed Friday night over the Iranian weekend. No one answered calls to his listed phone number.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “was appalled to learn of the attack” on Rushdie, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. “In no case is violence a response to words spoken or written by others in the exercise of their freedoms of opinion and expression.”

In 2012 Rushdie published a memoir, “Joseph Anton”, on the fatwa. The title comes from the alias Rushdie used while in hiding.

Rushdie rose to prominence with his 1981 Booker Prize-winning novel “Midnight’s Children,” but his name became known worldwide after “The Satanic Verses.”

Widely regarded as one of Britain’s finest living writers, Rushdie was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2008 and earlier this year was made a Member of the Order of Honorary Companions, a distinction award for people who have made a major contribution to the arts. , science or public life.

In a tweet, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson lamented that Rushdie had been attacked “while exercising a right we should never stop defending”.

The Chautauqua Institution, about 89 miles southwest of Buffalo in a rural corner of New York, has served for more than a century as a place of reflection and spiritual guidance. Visitors do not go through metal detectors and do not undergo bag checks. Most people leave the doors of their century-old cabins unlocked at night.

The center is known for its summer lecture series, where Rushdie has previously spoken.

During a night vigil, a few hundred residents and visitors gathered for prayer, music and a long moment of silence.

“Hate cannot win,” one man shouted.

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Associated Press reporters John Wawrow in Chautauqua; Jennifer Peltz, Hillel Italy and Edith Lederer in New York; Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, New York; Michael Hill in Albany, New York; Ted Shaffrey in Fairview, New Jersey; and Nasser Karimi and Mehdi Fattahi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

Angela C. Hale