Salman Rushdie, novelist who drew death threats, is stabbed at New York lecture

Rushdie has faced death threats for his fourth novel, "The Satanic Verses," which some Muslims said contained blasphemous passages

Kanishka Singh and Jonathan AllenReuters
Published : 12 August 2022, 03:33 PM
Updated : 12 August 2022, 09:49 PM

Salman Rushdie, the Indian-born novelist who spent years in hiding after Iran urged Muslims to kill him because of his writing, was stabbed in the neck and abdomen onstage at a lecture in New York state on Friday and airlifted to a hospital, police said.

He was alive and still in surgery early Friday evening, state police said.

A man rushed to the stage at the Chautauqua Institution and attacked Rushdie, 75, as he was being introduced to give a talk on artistic freedom to an audience of hundreds, eyewitnesses said. A New York State Police trooper providing security at the event took the attacker into custody. The suspect was identified as Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old man from Fairview, New Jersey, who bought a pass to the event, police said.

"A man jumped up on the stage from I don't know where and started what looked like beating him on the chest, repeated fist strokes into his chest and neck," said Bradley Fisher, who was in the audience. "People were screaming and crying out and gasping."

Rushdie, author of "The Satanic Verses," fell to the floor when the man attacked him, and was then surrounded by a small group of people who held up his legs, seemingly to send more blood to his upper body, as the attacker was restrained, according to another witness attending the lecture.

A doctor in the audience helped tend to Rushdie while emergency services arrived, police said. Henry Reese, the event's moderator, suffered a minor head injury. Police said they were working with federal investigators to determine a motive for the attack. It was not clear what kind of weapon was used.

Rushdie, who was born into a Muslim Kashmiri family in Bombay, now known as Mumbai, before moving to the United Kingdom, has faced death threats for his fourth novel, "The Satanic Verses," which some Muslims said contained blasphemous passages. The novel was banned in many countries with large Muslim populations upon its 1988 publication.

A few months later, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Iran's supreme leader, pronounced a fatwa, or religious edict, calling upon Muslims to kill the novelist and anyone involved in its publication for blasphemy.

Rushdie, who called his novel "pretty mild," went into hiding for many years. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of the novel, was murdered in 1991. The Iranian government said in 1998 it would no longer back the fatwa, and Rushdie has lived relatively openly in recent years.

Iranian organizations, some affiliated with the government, have raised a bounty worth millions of dollars for Rushdie's murder. And Khomeini's successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said as recently as 2019 that the fatwa was still "irrevocable."

Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency and other news outlets donated money in 2016 to increase the bounty by $600,000. Fars called Rushdie an apostate who "insulted the prophet" in its report on Friday's attack.

Rushdie published a memoir in 2012 about his life under the fatwa called "Joseph Anton," the pseudonym he used while under British police protection. His second novel, "Midnight's Children," won the Booker Prize. His new novel "Victory City" is due to be published in February.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was appalled that Rushdie was "stabbed while exercising a right we should never cease to defend."

Rushdie was at the institution in western New York for a discussion about the United States giving asylum to writers and artists in exile and "as a home for freedom of creative expression," according to the institution's website.

There were no obvious security checks at the Chautauqua Institution, a landmark founded in the 19th century in the small lakeside town of the same name, with staff simply checking people's tickets for admission, attendees said.

"I felt like we needed to have more protection there because Salman Rushdie is not a usual writer," said Anour Rahmani, an Algerian writer and human rights activist who was also in the audience. "He's a writer with a fatwa against him."

The institution declined to comment on security measures.

Rushdie became an American citizen in 2016 and lives in New York City.

He has been a fierce critic of religion across the spectrum and outspoken about oppression and violence in his native India, including under the Hindu-nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Iran's mission to the United Nations in New York did not respond to a request for comment.

PEN America, an advocacy group for freedom of expression of which Rushdie is a former president, said it was "reeling from shock and horror" on what it called an unprecedented attack on a writer in the United States.

"Salman Rushdie has been targeted for his words for decades but has never flinched nor faltered," Suzanne Nossel, PEN's chief executive, said in the statement. Earlier in the morning, Rushdie had emailed her to help with relocating Ukrainian writers seeking refuge, she said.

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