Salman Rushdie, the Indian-born British author whose writing led to death threats from Iran in the 1980s, has been stabbed as he was about to give a lecture in southwestern New York state.
Police confirmed Rushdie was stabbed “at least once in the neck, and at least once in the abdomen” on Friday after an assailant rushed to the stage and lunged at the 75-year-old writer just as he was being introduced to the audience.
After being airlifted to hospital where he spent hours in surgery, Rushdie was on a ventilator and unable to speak on Friday evening.
“The news is not good,” Andrew Wylie, his book agent, wrote in an email to the Reuters news agency. “Salman will likely lose one eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged.”
Police identified the suspect as 24-year-old Hadi Matar from New Jersey.
Major Eugene Staniszewski of New York state police told reporters on Friday afternoon that officials do not have “any indication of a motive” at this “very early” stage of the investigation. They said they believed that Matar was acting alone.
Stacey Schlosser, who witnessed the attack, told The Associated Press news agency that Rushdie was stabbed six to eight times before the attacker was restrained.
“Nobody knew what to do. Nobody knew how to react. I mean, there were tons of people that rushed the stage,” Schlosser 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.”
Stunned attendees helped pull the man off Rushdie, who had fallen to the floor. A New York state police trooper providing security at the event arrested the attacker, while a doctor in the audience helped look after Rushdie until emergency services arrived.
Life in hiding
Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, has been banned in Iran and some other countries, as many Muslims consider it to be blasphemous. In 1989, Iran’s late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued an edict calling for Rushdie’s death.
Iran’s government has since distanced itself from the decree, but anti-Rushdie sentiment has lingered.
“The fatwa belongs to the Ayatollah and cannot be rescinded by the state according to Iranian practice,” Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told Al Jazeera. “They [Iran] took this distance from it as part of a pre-condition for the Iranians and the UK to restore diplomatic relations. Ever since, the threat picture against Salman Rushdie seems to have reduced significantly, but clearly not enough.”
In 2012, a semi-official Iranian religious foundation had increased the amount on offer for the writer’s killing from $2.8m to $3.3m.
Rushdie dismissed that threat at the time, saying there was “no evidence” of people being interested in the money and published a memoir, Joseph Anton, about his ordeal. The title came from the pseudonym Rushdie had used while in hiding.
Rushdie rose to prominence in 1981 when his second novel Midnight’s Children, won the Booker Prize, but it was with the publication of The Satanic Verses that his name became known around the world.
The Chautauqua Institution, about 90km (55 miles) southwest of Buffalo in a rural corner of New York, is known for its summertime lecture series.
Rushdie, who started out in advertising, has published more than a dozen books and spoken at Chautauqua before. He had been scheduled to talk about the United States giving asylum to artists in exile and “as a home for freedom of creative expression”, according to the institution’s website. His new novel Victory City is due to be published in February.
The author, who currently lives in the US, had lived under police protection because of threats to his life. The United Kingdom awarded him a knighthood in 2007, which sparked protests in several countries in the Muslim world.
“I first met him at a public event in 1998 in the UK. He was wonderful and relaxed in spite of everything happening around him,” Amit Chaudhuri, a novelist based in Oxford, the UK, said referring to the security threat to Rushdie.
“I would say his presence has been transformative for Indian fiction and fiction generally,” he told Al Jazeera.
“There are things about his writings and about him which are worth acknowledging. We still have not fully acknowledged and understood part of which has to do with his true openness and eclecticism.”
Writers, advocacy groups and politicians in the US and Europe condemned Friday’s attack and defended freedom of speech.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Rushdie was stabbed “while exercising a right we should never cease to defend”.
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “For 33 years, Salman Rushdie has embodied freedom and the fight against obscurantism. He has just been the victim of a cowardly attack by the forces of hatred and barbarism. His fight is our fight; it is universal.”
I’m utterly horrified by the cowardly attack on Salman Rushdie. I pray for his recovery. He is an essential voice and cannot be silenced.
— Khaled Hosseini (@khaledhosseini) August 12, 2022
As Salman Rushdie’s long-term publishers in the UK, we are deeply upset and appalled at this shocking attack on one of the world’s very finest writers and storytellers, who is an inspiration to so many. Our thoughts are with Salman and his loved ones while we wait to hear more. https://t.co/X4s8mqhxf6
— Vintage Books (@vintagebooks) August 12, 2022
Sad to the hear the attack on Salman Rushdie.
As a Muslim, I had found his 1988 novel offensive as many Muslims did. But ideas must be countered by ideas; not death fatwas, murders, brutality.
I hope he recovers. And the world recovers, too, from all glorifications of violence.
— Mustafa Akyol (@AkyolinEnglish) August 12, 2022
Appalled that Sir Salman Rushdie has been stabbed while exercising a right we should never cease to defend.
Right now my thoughts are with his loved ones. We are all hoping he is okay.
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) August 12, 2022
Pen America, a writers’ association that promotes freedom of expression, which Rushdie once led, described the assault as a “premeditated attack”.
“PEN America is reeling from shock and horror at word of a brutal, premeditated attack on our former President and stalwart ally, Salman Rushdie, who was reportedly stabbed multiple times while on stage speaking at the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York,” the group’s CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement.
“We can think of no comparable incident of a public violent attack on a literary writer on American soil.”
US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who represents New York, called the assault on Rushdie an “appalling” attack on “freedom of speech and thought”.
“I hope Mr. Rushdie quickly and fully recovers and the perpetrator experiences full accountability and justice,” Schumer wrote on Twitter.