Salman Rushdie, the author whose writing led to death threats from Iran in the 1980s, was attacked and apparently stabbed in the neck Friday by a man who rushed the stage as he was about to give a lecture in western New York.
A bloodied Rushdie, 75, was flown to a hospital.
An Associated Press reporter witnessed a man confront Rushdie on stage at the Chautauqua Institution and punch or stab him 10 to 15 times as he was being introduced. The author was pushed or fell to the floor, and the man was arrested.
The New York State Police have identified the suspect as 24-year-old Hadi Matar, who is now in police custody.
In a press conference Friday evening, the police said that Rushdie had been stabbed at least once in the neck and the abdomen. He was taken to hospital and as of 5 p.m. was still undergoing surgery. A motive is not yet known at this time.
Gov. Kathy Hochul said later that he was alive and “getting the care he needs.”
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, a co-founder of an organization that offers residencies to writers facing persecution, was also attacked and suffered a minor head injury, police said. He and Rushdie were due to discuss the United States as a refuge for writers and other artists in exile.
Police said a state trooper was assigned to Rushdie’s lecture and 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 in the Muslim world offering more than $3 million for anyone who kills him.
Rabbi Charles Savenor was among the roughly 2,500 people in the audience. Amid gasps, spectators were ushered out of the outdoor amphitheater.
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 Jones, 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.
Rushdie was quickly surrounded by a small group of people who held up his legs, presumably to send more blood to his chest.
“We can think of no comparable incident of a public violent attack on a literary writer on American soil,” CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement.
“Salman Rushdie has been targeted for his words for decades but has never flinched nor faltered,” she added.
“While we do not know the origins or motives of this attack, all those around the world who have met words with violence or called for the same are culpable for legitimizing this an assault on a writer while he was engaged in his essential work of connecting to readers.”
“Our thoughts and passions now lie with our dauntless Salman, wishing him a full and speedy recovery. We hope and believe fervently that his essential voice cannot and will not be silenced,” Nossel said.
Author Neil Gaiman also took to Twitter to express his shock at the incident.
“I’m shocked and distressed to see my friend Salman Rushdie has been attacked before a talk. He’s a good man and a brilliant one and I hope he’s okay,” Gaiman wrote.
Reactions poured in from across the world following the news of the attack. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “appalled,” while U.K. Culture Minister Nadine Dorries called it “horrifying.”
U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer called it an “attack on freedom of speech and thought.”
Prominent authors Khaled Hosseini and Amitav Ghosh wished for his quick recovery.
Norwegian publisher William Nygaard, who was shot and severely wounded in 1993 after publishing Rushdie’s work, said, “Rushdie has paid a high price. He is a leading author who has meant so much to literature, and he had found a good life in the United States.”
Playwright Bonnie Greer wrote: “I don’t know why this happened to Salman Rushdie or actually WHAT happened. But it brings back the memory of terrible days and years when-if you were a writer-you could be condemned to DEATH…for a book. For a book…”
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. 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 leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a 1989 fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death. Khomeini died that same year.
Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has never issued a fatwa of his own withdrawing the edict, though Iran in recent years hasn’t 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 led a night news bulletin on Iranian state television.
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.
He said in a 2012 talk in New York that terrorism is 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 Associated Press 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.
In 2012, Rushdie published a memoir, “Joseph Anton,” about the fatwa. The title came from the pseudonym Rushdie had used while in hiding.
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.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that he was “appalled” that Rushdie was stabbed “while exercising a right we should never cease to defend.”
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 Chautauqua center is known for its summertime lecture series, where Rushdie has spoken before.
— With files from Global News’ Twinkle Ghosh