NEW YORK, Aug 12 (Reuters) – Salman Rushdie, the Indian-born novelist who spent years in hiding after Iran urged Muslims to kill him for his writing, was stabbed in the neck and torso on stage during a conference in New York state on Friday and airlifted to a hospital, police said.
After hours of surgery, Rushdie was on a ventilator and unable to speak Friday night after an attack condemned by writers and politicians around the world as an attack on free speech.
“The news is not good,” Andrew Wylie, his book agent, wrote in an email. “Salman will probably lose an eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged.”
Sign up now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
Rushdie, 75, was being introduced to give a talk to an audience of hundreds on artistic freedom at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York when a man ran onto the stage and lunged at the novelist, who has lived with a bounty on his head from the late 1980s
Stunned attendees helped snatch the man from Rushdie, who had fallen to the ground. A New York State police officer providing security at the event arrested the shooter. Police identified the suspect as Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old man from Fairview, New Jersey, who purchased a pass to the event.
“A man jumped onto the stage from somewhere and began what appeared to be punching him in the chest, repeated punches to the chest and neck,” said Bradley Fisher, who was in the audience. “People were screaming and crying and gasping.”
A doctor in the audience helped treat Rushdie while emergency services arrived, police said. Henry Reese, the moderator of the event, suffered a minor head injury. Police said they were working with federal investigators to determine the motive. They did not describe the weapon used.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan described the incident as “appalling”. “We are grateful to the good citizens and first responders for helping him so quickly,” he wrote on Twitter.
Rushdie, who was born into a Kashmiri Muslim family in Bombay, now Mumbai, before moving to the UK, has long faced death threats for his fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses.”
Some Muslims said the book contained blasphemous passages. It was banned in many countries with large Muslim populations since its publication in 1988.
A few months later, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Iran’s supreme leader, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling on Muslims to kill the novelist and anyone involved in the book’s publication for blasphemy.
Rushdie, who called his novel “pretty bland,” went into hiding for nearly a decade. Hitoshi Igarashi, the novel’s Japanese translator, was assassinated in 1991. The Iranian government said in 1998 that it would no longer support the fatwa, and Rushdie has lived relatively openly in recent years.
Iranian organizations, some affiliated with the government, have raised millions of dollars for Rushdie’s murder. And Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in 2019 that the fatwa was “irrevocable.”
Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency and other media outlets donated money in 2016 to increase the reward by $600,000. Fars called Rushdie an apostate who “insulted the prophet” in his report on Friday’s attack.
‘NOT A USUAL WRITER’
Rushdie published a memoir in 2012 about his secret, cloistered life under the fatwa called “Joseph Anton,” the pseudonym he used while under the protection of British police. His second novel, “Midnight’s Children,” won the Booker Prize. His new novel “City of Victory” will be published in February.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was horrified that Rushdie was “stabbed while exercising a right that we must never stop defending”.
Rushdie was at the institution in western New York for a discussion of the United States providing asylum to artists in exile and “as a home for freedom of creative expression,” according to the institution’s website.
There were no obvious security checkpoints at the Chautauqua Institution, a landmark founded in the 19th century in the small lakeside town of the same name; staff simply checked people’s admission passes, aides said.
“I felt we needed to have more protection there because Salman Rushdie is not a regular writer,” said Anour Rahmani, an Algerian writer and human rights activist who was in the audience. “He is a writer with a fatwa against him.”
Michael Hill, the institution’s president, said at a news conference that they have a practice of working with state and local police to provide security at events. He promised that the summer program would soon continue.
“Our whole purpose is to help people save what has been a very divisive world,” Hill said. “The worst thing Chautauqua could do is walk away from his mission in light of this tragedy, and I don’t think Mr. Rushdie wants that either.”
Rushdie became a US citizen in 2016 and lives in New York City.
A self-described non-practicing Muslim and “hardline atheist,” he has been a fierce critic of religion across the spectrum and has spoken out about oppression in his native India, including under the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
PEN America, a free speech advocacy group of which Rushdie is a former chairman, said it was “recovered from shock and horror” by what it called an unprecedented attack on a writer in the United States. read more
“Salman Rushdie has been under attack for his words for decades, but he has never flinched or wavered,” Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN, said in the statement. Earlier in the morning, Rushdie had emailed her to help her relocate Ukrainian writers seeking refuge, she said.
Sign up now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
Reporting from Kanishka Singh in Washington, Jonathan Allen, Randi Love, and Tyler Clifford in New York, and Maria Ponnezhath in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols, Andrew Hay, and Costas Pitas; Edited by Alistair Bell, Daniel Wallis and Michael Perry
Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.