CHAUTAUQUA, NY — Salman Rushdie spent years in hiding after Iranian leaders called for his death following the publication of his novel “The Satanic Verses.” But in recent years, declaring “Oh, I have to live my life”, he has reentered society, regularly appearing in public around New York with no obvious security.
On Friday morning, any sense that threats to his life were a thing of the past was dispelled when an attacker rushed to the stage at the Chautauqua facility here in western New York, where Mr Rushdie was due to give a talk on the United States as a haven for exiled writers. The assailant stabbed Mr Rushdie, 75, in the abdomen and neck, police and witnesses said, trying to continue the attack even as several people restrained him.
Mr. Rushdie was taken by helicopter to a nearby hospital in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he underwent surgery for several hours on Friday afternoon. Mr Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, said on Friday night that Mr Rushdie was on a ventilator and could not speak.
“The news is not good,” Mr Wylie said in an email. “Salman will probably lose an eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged.
New York State Police Maj. 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 during a a press conference on Friday afternoon that there was still no indication of a reason.
He said police were working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the local sheriff’s office and investigators were in the process of obtaining search warrants for a backpack and electronics found at the facility.
The attack stunned onlookers, who had gathered in the 4,000-seat amphitheater at the Chautauqua facility, a summer destination for literary and arts programming.
“It took about five men to pull him away and he was still stabbing,” said Linda Abrams, who attended the conference in the front row. “He was just furious, furious. Like intensely loud and just fast.
Others described blood running down Mr Rushdie’s cheek and pooling on the floor. A doctor present, Rita Landman, said Mr Rushdie appeared to have several stab wounds, including one to 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 was on stage with Mr Rushdie to moderate the discussion, suffered facial injuries in the attack and was discharged from hospital on Friday afternoon, police said.
The brazen attack on Mr. Rushdie shook the literary world. Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, which promotes freedom of expression, said in a statement that “we cannot think of any comparable incident of public attack on a literary writer on American soil.”
After his release 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 free speech and freedom of creative expression”.
“We revere him and our primary concern is for his life,” Mr Reese said. “The fact that this attack may occur in the United States is indicative of the threats to writers from many governments and many individuals and organizations.”
Mr Rushdie had effectively been living under a death sentence since 1989, some six months after the publication of his novel ‘The Satanic Verses’, which romanticized parts of the Prophet Muhammad’s life with depictions that many Muslims found offensive and which some considered blasphemous. .
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader after the 1979 Iranian revolution, issued a religious edict known as a fatwa on February 14, 1989, ordering Muslims to kill Mr Rushdie. His head has been priced at several million dollars. Mr Rushdie, who was living in London at the time, went into hiding and moved into a fortified house under the protection of British police for most of the next 10 years.
At around 10:47 a.m. Friday morning, Mr. Rushdie had just sat down on stage with the discussion moderator, Mr. Reese, the co-founder of a Pittsburgh nonprofit, City of Asylum, a program of residence for exiled writers, when a man rushed onto the stage and attacked Mr Rushdie, police and several witnesses said. Audience members gasped and jumped to their feet.
Mary Newsom, who attended the conference, said some people initially thought it might be a stunt. “Then it became clear that it was clearly not a stunt,” she said.
Several witnesses said the attacker was able to reach Mr Rushdie easily, running onto the stage and approaching him from behind. Chuck Koch, an Ohio attorney who owns a home in Chautauqua, was seated in the second row and ran onto the stage to help subdue the assailant. Mr Koch said several people worked to separate the attacker from Mr Rushdie and were able to do so before a uniformed officer arrived and handcuffed the attacker.
As the attacker was restrained, another attendee, Bruce Johnson, saw a knife fall to the ground, he said.
Michael Hill, president of Chautauqua, said at the press conference on Friday afternoon that Mr. Matar had a pass to access the institution’s grounds like any typical customer.
The attack was decried by literary figures and officials. Markus Dohle, managing director of Penguin Random House, Mr Rushdie’s publisher, said in a statement: “We are deeply shocked and appalled to learn of the attack.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a Twitter post that he was “appalled that Sir Salman Rushdie had been stabbed while exercising a right that we should never stop defending”.
Governor Kathy Hochul of New York said on Twitter: “Today’s attack on Salman Rushdie was also an attack on some of our most sacred values - the free expression of thought.”
Even before the fatwa, “Satanic Verses” were banned in a number of countries, including Bangladesh, Sudan, Sri Lanka and India, where Mr Rushdie was born. He was banned from the country for more than a decade.
After the fatwa, Mr. Rushdie’s half-hearted apology, which he later regretted, was rejected by Iran.
Many died in protests against its publication, including 12 people in a riot in Mumbai in February 1989 and six others in another riot in Islamabad. Books have been burned and there have been attacks on bookstores. People connected to the book were also targeted.
In July 1991, Hitoshi Igarashi, the novel’s Japanese translator, was stabbed to death and his Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, was seriously injured. In October 1993, William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of the novel, was shot three times outside his home in Oslo and seriously injured.
The fatwa was maintained by the Iranian government after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini for almost a decade, until 1998 when Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, considered relatively liberal, declared that Iran no longer supported the murder. But the fatwa remains in place, with a bounty from an Iranian religious foundation of around $3.3 million in 2012.
In an interview with The Sunday Times in 1995, shortly before Mr 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 discussed his return to writing after the conflagration on “The Satanic Verses”.
“Writing this was a very big step for me,” he said in that interview. “I had spent two and a half years talking to politicians, which is not my favorite occupation. Then I realized that it was foolish to let this unpleasant affair get in the way of what I love to do best. 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 has published eight novels and a 2012 memoir, “Joseph Anton”, on the fatwa. The title comes from the pseudonym he used in hiding, taken from the first names of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.
In recent years, Mr. Rushdie has had a more public life in New York. In 2019, he spoke in a private club in Manhattan to promote his novel “Quixote”. Security at the event was released and Mr Rushdie mingled freely with guests and later dined with club members.
Iran has yet to officially comment on the attack on the author.
But government supporters took to social media to praise the stabbings at Mr Rushdie as the Ayatollah’s fatwa finally materialized. Some wanted him dead. Some have warned that a similar fate awaits other enemies of the Islamic Republic.
A quote from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from several years ago has been widely shared, in which he says the fatwa against Mr Rushdie was “fired like a bullet that won’t stop until it hits his target.
Ayad Akhtar, writer and president of PEN America, who is friends with Mr Rushdie and considers ‘The Satanic Verses’ a ‘pivotal moment’ in modern literary history, said he had never seen Mr Rushdie provide every detail of security. , whether at the theatre, in a restaurant or at a public event. Mr Rushdie seemed perfectly at home 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. Additional reports were provided by Steven Erlanger, Farnaz Fassihi, Jonah E. Bromwich and Edmond Lee.
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