Salman Rushdie, the author whose writing led to death threats from Iran in the 1980s, was attacked Friday as he was about to give a lecture in western New York.
CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. — Salman Rushdie, whose novel “The Satanic Verses” drew death threats from Iran’s leader in the 1980s, was stabbed in the neck and abdomen Friday by a man who rushed the stage as the author was about to give a lecture in western New York.
A bloodied Rushdie, 75, was flown to a hospital and underwent surgery. His agent, Andrew Wylie, said the writer was on a ventilator Friday evening, with a damaged liver, severed nerves in his arm and an eye he was likely to lose.
Police identified the attacker as Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, New Jersey. He was awaiting arraignment following his arrest at the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit education and rereat center where Rushdie was scheduled to speak.
Matar was born in the United States to Lebanese parents who emigrated from Yaroun, a border village in southern Lebanon, Mayor Ali Tehfe told The Associated Press. His birth was a decade after “The Satanic Verses” first was published.
The motive for the attack was unclear, State Police Maj. Eugene Staniszewski said.
Rushdie’s 1988 novel was viewed as blasphemous by many Muslims, who saw a character as an insult to the Prophet Muhammad, among other objections. The book was banned in Iran, where the late leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a 1989 fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death.
Iran’s theocratic government and its state-run media assigned no rationale for Friday’s assault. In Tehran, some Iranians interviewed Saturday by the AP praised the attack on an author they believe tarnished the Islamic faith, while others worried it would further isolate their country.
An AP reporter witnessed the attacker confront Rushdie on stage and stab or punch him 10 to 15 times as the author was being introduced. Dr. Martin Haskell, a physician who was among those who rushed to help, described Rushdie’s wounds as “serious but recoverable.”
Event moderator Henry Reese, 73, a co-founder of an organization that offers residencies to writers facing persecution, was also attacked. Reese suffered a facial injury and was treated and released from a hospital, police said. He and Rushdie had planned to discuss the United States as a refuge for writers and other artists in exile.
A state trooper and a county sheriff’s deputy were assigned to Rushdie’s lecture, and state police said the trooper made the arrest. But after the attack, some longtime visitors to the center questioned why there wasn’t tighter security for the event, given the decades of threats against Rushdie and a bounty on his head offering more than $3 million to anyone who killed him.
Matar, like other visitors, had obtained a pass to enter the Chautauqua Institution’s 750-acre grounds, Michael Hill, the institution’s president, said.
The suspect’s attorney, public defender Nathaniel Barone, said he was still gathering information and declined to comment. Matar’s home was blocked off by authorities.
Rabbi Charles Savenor was among the roughly 2,500 people in the audience for Rushdie’s appearance.
The assailant ran onto the platform “and started pounding on Mr. Rushdie. At first you’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ And then it became abundantly clear in a few seconds that he was being beaten,” Savenor said. He said the attack lasted about 20 seconds.
Another spectator, Kathleen James, said the attacker was dressed in black, with a black mask.
“We thought perhaps it was part of a stunt to show that there’s still a lot of controversy around this author. But it became evident in a few seconds” that it wasn’t, she said.
Amid gasps, spectators were ushered out of the outdoor amphitheater.
The stabbing reverberated from the tranquil town of Chautauqua to the United Nations, which issued a statement expressing U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ horror and stressing that free expression and opinion should not be met with violence.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday’s attack, which led an evening news bulletin on Iranian state television.
From the White House, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan described the attack as “reprehensible” and said the Biden administration wished Rushdie a quick recovery.
“This act of violence is appalling,” Sullivan said in a statement. “We are thankful to good citizens and first responders for helping Mr. Rushdie so quickly after the attack and to law enforcement for its swift and effective work, which is ongoing.”
Rushdie has been a prominent spokesman for free expression and liberal causes, and the literary world recoiled at what Ian McEwan, a novelist and Rushdie’s friend, described as “an assault on freedom of thought and speech.”
“Salman has been an inspirational defender of persecuted writers and journalists across 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 didn’t know of any comparable act of violence against a literary writer in the U.S. Rushdie was once president of the group, which advocates for writers and free expression.
After the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” often-violent protests erupted across the Muslim world 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.
Khomeini died the same year he issued the fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, never issued a fatwa of his own withdrawing the edict, though Iran in recent years hasn’t focused on the writer.
The death threats and bounty led Rushdie to go into hiding under a British government protection program, which included a round-the-clock armed guard. Rushdie emerged after nine years of seclusion and cautiously resumed more public appearances, maintaining his outspoken criticism of religious extremism overall.
In 2012, Rushdie published a memoir, “Joseph Anton,” about the fatwa. The title came from the pseudonym Rushdie used while in hiding. He said during a New York talk the same year the memoir came out that terrorism was really the art of fear.
“The only way you can defeat it is by deciding not to be afraid,” he said.
Anti-Rushdie sentiment has lingered long after Khomeini’s decree. The Index on Censorship, an organization promoting free expression, said money was raised to boost the reward for his killing as recently as 2016.
An AP journalist who went to the Tehran office of the 15 Khordad Foundation, which put up the millions for the bounty on Rushdie, found it closed Friday night on the Iranian weekend. No one answered calls to its listed telephone number.
Rushdie rose to prominence with his Booker Prize-winning 1981 novel “Midnight’s Children,” but his name became known around the world 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 the Companions of Honor, a royal accolade for people who have made a major contribution to the arts, science or public life.
Organizers of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which opens Saturday in Scotland and is one of the world’s largest literary gatherings, are encouraging guest authors to read a sentence from Rushdie’s work at the start of their events.
“We are inspired by his courage and are thinking of him at this difficult time,” festival director Nick Barley said. “This tragedy is a painful reminder of the fragility of things we hold dear and a call to action: We won’t be intimidated by those who would use violence rather than words.”
The Chautauqua Institution, about 55 miles southwest of Buffalo in a rural corner of New York, has served for more than a century as a place for reflection and spiritual guidance. Visitors don’t pass through metal detectors or undergo bag checks. Most people leave the doors to their century-old cottages unlocked at night.
The center is known for its summertime lecture series, where Rushdie has spoken before.
At an evening vigil, a few hundred residents and visitors gathered for prayer, music and a long moment of silence.
“Hate can’t win,” one man shouted.
FILED UNDER: IRAN, NEW YORK, POLITICS