Author Salman Rushdie on ventilator, could lose eye after stabbing on lecture stage
Writer Salman Rushdie, who for years was the target of death threats from Iran, was stabbed in the neck and body Friday at a conference in New York state.
Rushdie, whose book “The Satanic Verses” sent him undercover out of fear for his life, was preparing to speak at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York when Hadi Matar, 24, rushed the stage around 10:45 a.m., attacked him and an interviewer and then started to stab the 75-year-old author, police said.
Rushdie was taken by helicopter to a hospital, where he underwent surgery, the state police said.
Andrew Wylie, Rushdie’s agent, told the New York Times on Friday night that “the news is not good,” saying the author was on a ventilator and could not speak.
“Salman will likely lose one eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged,” Wylie said in the statement.
One witness described the attack.
“He crept up real fast behind him with a short-bladed black knife that he immediately then — the first attack was to his throat on the right side,” Carter Byham, 52, told the Los Angeles Times.
Byham was sitting in the third row and noticed a crouching man in black come from an alleyway to the right of the stage. The man came around behind Rushdie to attack, Byham said.
“Rushdie knocked him off with his arm, stood up, then [the man] went to [Rushdie’s] chest,” Byham said. “Then the moderator tackled the guy.”
Byham said the whole attack lasted about 10 seconds and that people rushed the stage to come to Rushdie’s aid. A doctor in the audience gave Rushdie medical treatment until EMS arrived and had the writer airlifted to a hospital, a state police spokesman said.
“I saw Rushdie sitting up holding his neck, pool of blood around him,” Byham said, near tears.
Matar was taken into custody by a state police officer. He is from Fairview, N.J., state police said.
Maj. Eugene Staniszewski, a state police commander, said at a Friday news briefing that troopers were working on the investigation with the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office, district attorney’s office and the FBI.
Asked whether he expected federal charges to be filed alongside state charges, Staniszewski said it was “a possibility.”
“We are in the process of obtaining search warrants for various items,” he said. “There was a backpack located at the scene. There was also electronic devices.”
As of Friday, authorities believe Matar acted alone, but investigators are working to confirm whether that’s true.
There were no indications of a threat leading up to the event, Staniszewski said.
Rushdie was at the Chautauqua Institution on Friday to talk with Ralph Henry Reese about “the United States as asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression,” according to the institution’s website.
Reese, 73, who was also attacked and suffered minor head injuries, founded City of Asylum, an organization that provides sanctuary in Pittsburgh to writers facing persecution.
The Chautauqua Institution, a community that offers lectures and arts programming throughout the summer, said it canceled the rest of its Friday events.
“We ask for your prayers for Salman Rushdie and Henry Reese, and patience as we fully focus on coordinating with police officials following a tragic incident at the Amphitheater today,” it said in a statement.
In a statement Friday night, the Authors Guild said it was “deeply troubled and outraged by the attack.”
“I was horrified and shocked to learn that our valued member and longtime friend, the novelist Salman Rushdie, was violently stabbed,” said Doug Preston, the guild’s president. “The assault on Rushdie was an attack on all writers and on free speech itself. We are all Salman Rushdie.”
The suspect in the attack was immediately arrested by a state trooper who was on scene, according to the police.
“He is alive. He has been transported, airlifted to safety,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said of Rushdie at a news conference, adding that Chautauqua is a “tranquil, rural” community.
She commended a state police officer for saving Rushdie’s life.
Witness Kathleen Jones said the attacker wore black and 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.
PEN America Chief Executive Suzanne Nossel said the literary free speech organization was “reeling from shock and horror at word of a brutal, premeditated attack” against Rushdie, its former president.
Rushdie was born in India and raised in Mumbai before moving to England to attend high school and the University of Cambridge, the Authors Guild said. He is the author of 14 novels, including “Midnight’s Children,” for which he won the 1981 Booker Prize.
Rushdie’s life first came under threat in 1989, when Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini placed a fatwa on him over “The Satanic Verses,” a book inspired by the life of the prophet Muhammad.
The book caused an uproar in many Muslim communities. Khomeini called it blasphemy, saying it was “against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran” when he ordered Rushdie’s death. He offered a $1-million reward for Rushdie’s killer. Khomeini died in 1989.
After the fatwa was ordered, the writer went into hiding, moving constantly and always remaining protected by a bodyguard.
The 1989 fatwa was no idle threat. In 1991, Hitoshi Igarashi, 44, a Japanese professor who translated “The Satanic Verses” into Japanese, was found stabbed to death. No one was arrested for the killing.
An Italian translator of the book was also attacked in 1991 by an Iranian man who stabbed him repeatedly.
The Iranian government in 1998 said it no longer backed the fatwa, and Rushdie moved out of hiding to New York City.
“The battle chose me, I didn’t choose it,” Rushdie told The Times in 2012 about the fatwa.
“On the one side there’s almost everything I value most: liberty, art, imaginative freedom, tolerance. And on the other side there’s bigotry, intolerance, violence, a kind of religious fascism,” he said.
The Authors Guild said it supported Rushdie after the fatwa was ordered and still stands by him now.
“We do not tolerate attacks on free speech of any kind, much less assault and murder,” according to the Guild’s statement. “We are following the developments with extreme concern and Mr. Rushdie is in our hearts. We wish him a safe recovery.”
Times staff writer Dorany Pineda and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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