CHAUTAUQUA, NY — Salman Rushdie went into hiding for years after Iran’s leadership called for his death following the publication of his novel “The Satanic Verses.” But in recent years, when he declared, “Oh, I have to live my life,” he re-entered society, appearing regularly in public around New York City with no apparent safety.
On Friday morning, any sense that threats to his life were a thing of the past were dispelled when an attacker stormed the stage at Chautauqua Institution here in western New York, where Mr. Rushdie was due to lecture on the United States as a safe haven for exiled writers. . The attacker stabbed Mr Rushdie, 75, in the abdomen and neck, police and witnesses said, as he struggled to continue the attack even as several people stopped him.
Rushdie was helicoptered to a nearby hospital in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he underwent several hours of surgery Friday afternoon. Mr. Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, said Friday night that Mr. Rushdie was on a ventilator and unable to speak.
“The news is not good,” Mr. Wylie said in an email. “Salman will probably lose one eye; the nerves in his arm had been severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged.”
New York State Police Major Eugene J. Staniszewski identified the suspect in the attack as Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old New Jersey man who was arrested at the scene, but said at a news conference late Friday afternoon that there was no indication yet. for a motive.
He said police were working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the local sheriff and investigators were in the process of obtaining search warrants for a backpack and electronic devices found at the facility.
The attack stunned onlookers, who had gathered in the 4,000-seat amphitheater at the Chautauqua Institute, a summer destination for literary and arts programming.
“It took five men to pull him away and he still stabbed,” said Linda Abrams, who attended the front row lecture. “He was just furious, furious. Like intensely strong and just fast.”
Others described the blood streaming down Mr Rushdie’s cheek and onto the floor. A doctor on duty, Rita Landman, said Mr Rushdie appeared to have multiple stab wounds, including one on the right side of his neck, but people around him were saying, “He’s got a pulse, he’s got a pulse.”
Ralph Henry Reese, 73, who took the stage with Rushdie to moderate the discussion, suffered a facial injury during the attack and was released from hospital Friday afternoon, police said.
The brutal attack on Mr. Rushdie shocked the literary world. Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive officer of PEN America, which promotes free speech, said in a statement that “we cannot think of a comparable incident of a public attack on a literary writer on American soil.”
After being released from hospital, Mr Reese said in a statement that Mr Rushdie was “one of the great authors of our time and one of the great defenders of freedom of speech and the freedom of creative expression”.
“We revere him and our greatest concern is his life,” said Mr. Reese. “The fact that this attack could take place in the United States is indicative of the threats facing writers from many governments and many individuals and organizations.”
Mr Rushdie has in fact been under a death sentence since 1989, about six months after the publication of his novel “The Satanic Verses”, which fictionalized parts of the life of the Prophet Muhammad with images that many Muslims considered offensive and some considered blasphemous.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, issued a religious edict known as a fatwa on February 14, 1989, ordering Muslims to kill Mr Rushdie. A price of several million dollars was placed on his head. Mr Rushdie, who was living in London at the time, went into hiding and moved to a fortified safe house under the protection of British police for most of the next 10 years.
At around 10:47 a.m. on Friday morning, Mr. Rushdie had just sat down on stage with the discussion’s moderator, Mr. Reese, the co-founder of a Pittsburgh nonprofit, City of Asylum, a residency program for banned writers, when a man ran onto the stage and attacked Mr. Rushdie, police and several witnesses said. The spectators gasped and jumped to their feet.
Mary Newsom, who attended the talk, said some people initially thought it might have been a stunt. “Then it became clear it was clearly not a stunt,” she said.
Several witnesses said the attacker could easily reach Mr Rushdie by running up the stage and approaching him from behind. Chuck Koch, an Ohio attorney who owns a house in Chautauqua, sat in the second row and ran onto the stage to help subdue the attacker. Mr Koch said several people were working to separate the attacker from Mr Rushdie, and were able to do so before a uniformed officer arrived and handcuffed the attacker.
While the attacker was being held, another participant, Bruce Johnson, saw a knife fall to the ground, he said.
Michael Hill, the president of Chautauqua, said at Friday afternoon’s press conference that Mr. Matar had a pass to access the grounds of the institution, like any typical patron.
The attack was frowned upon by literary figures and officials. Markus Dohle, the chief executive of Penguin Random House, the publisher of Mr. Rushdie, said in a statement: “We are deeply shocked and appalled to hear of the attack.”
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: in a Twitter post that he was “dismayed that Sir Salman Rushdie was stabbed while exercising a right that we should never cease to defend.”
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said on Twitter: “Today’s attack on Salman Rushdie was also an attack on some of our most sacred values - free speech.”
Even before the fatwa, “The Satanic Verses” had been banned in a number of countries, including Bangladesh, Sudan, Sri Lanka, and India, where Mr Rushdie was born. He was expelled from the country for more than ten years.
After the fatwa, a half-hearted apology from Mr Rushdie, which he later regretted, was rejected by Iran.
Many died in protests against the publication, including 12 people in a February 1989 riot in Mumbai and another six in another riot in Islamabad. Books were burned and there were attacks on bookstores. People connected to the book were also targeted.
In July 1991, Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of the novel, was stabbed to death and the Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, was seriously injured. In October 1993, William Nygaard, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, was shot three times outside his Oslo home and seriously injured.
The fatwa was enforced by the Iranian government after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini for nearly a decade, until 1998, when Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who was considered relatively liberal, said Iran no longer supported the assassination. But the fatwa remains in effect, reportedly with a bounty from an Iranian religious foundation of about $3.3 million as of 2012.
In an interview with The Sunday Times in 1995, shortly before Rushdie’s first scheduled public appearance since the fatwa – a panel in London where he discussed his new novel, “The Moor’s Last Sigh”, the author spoke of his return to writing after the conflagration on “The Satanic Verses.”
“Writing this was a very important step for me,” he said in that interview. “I had been talking to politicians for two and a half years, which is not my favorite activity. Then I realized it was foolish to let this obnoxious company get in the way of what I love most. I wanted to prove to myself that I could absorb what happened to me and transcend it. And now at least I feel like I did.”
Since then, Mr. Rushdie published eight novels and a 2012 memoir, ‘Joseph Anton’, about the fatwa. The title came from the pseudonym he used during his hiding place, taken from the first names of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.
In recent years, Mr. Rushdie has enjoyed a more public life in New York City. In 2019, he spoke at a private Manhattan club to promote his novel “Quichotte.” Security at the event was relaxed and Mr Rushdie socialized freely with the guests and then dined with members of the club.
Iran has not yet officially responded to the attack on the author.
But government supporters took to social media to praise Rushdie’s stabbing when the ayatollah’s fatwa finally became a reality. Some wished he would die. Some warned that the same fate awaits other enemies of the Islamic Republic.
A quote from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei several years ago was widely shared, saying that the fatwa against Mr Rushdie was “fired like a bullet that will not rest until it reaches its target”.
Ayad Akhtar, a writer and the president of PEN America, who is friends with Mr. Rushdie and “The Satanic Verses” as an “essential moment” in modern literary history, said Mr. Rushdie has never seen any kind of safety detail, be it in a theatre, dining out or at a public event. Mr Rushdie seemed perfectly at ease in the world, he said.
Jay Root reported from Chautauqua, NY, David Gelles from Putnam Valley, NY, Elizabeth A. Harris and Julia Jacobs from New York City. Additional reporting contributed by: Steven Erlanger, Farnaz Fassihi, Jonah E. Bromwich and Edmund Lee.