Author Salman Rushdie on ventilator after stabbing attack on lecture stage

Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses drew death threats from Iran's leader, was stabbed in the neck and abdomen Friday by a man who rushed the stage as the author was about to give a lecture in western New York. A bloodied Rushdie, 75, was flown to a hospital and was undergoing surgery.

Agent says Satanic Verses author has been left with damage to liver, nerves and may lose an eye

Salman Rushdie, author of the controversial novel The Satanic Verses, was attacked by a man on a lecture stage in New York State. Rushdie was rushed to hospital to treat his stab wounds, and the attacker was arrested.

Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses drew death threats from Iran's leader in the 1980s, was stabbed in the neck and abdomen Friday by a man who rushed the stage as the author was about to give a lecture in western New York.

A bloodied Rushdie, 75, was flown to a hospital and was undergoing surgery, police said. His agent, Andrew Wylie, said the writer was on a ventilator Friday evening, with a damaged liver, severed nerves in an arm and an eye he was likely to lose.

Police identified the attacker as Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, N.J. He was arrested at the scene and was awaiting arraignment. State police Maj. Eugene Staniszewski said the motive for the stabbing was unclear.

An Associated Press reporter witnessed a man confront Rushdie as he was being introduced onstage at the Chautauqua Institution and punch or stab him 10 to 15 times. The author was pushed or fell to the floor, and the man was arrested.

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, 73, a co-founder of an organization that offers residencies to writers facing persecution, was also attacked. Reese suffered a facial injury and was treated and released from a hospital, police said. He and Rushdie were due to discuss the United States as a refuge for writers and other artists in exile.

WATCH | Witnesses describe Salman Rushdie attack:
Witnesses to the attack on Salman Rushdie Friday in western New York recount how a man approached the stage at the Chautauqua Institution where the author was about to give a lecture, attacked him and was later pinned down by people from the audience.

Lack of security questioned

A state trooper and a county sheriff's deputy were assigned to Rushdie's lecture, and state police said the trooper made the arrest.

But after the attack, some longtime visitors to the centre questioned why there wasn't tighter security for the event, given the decades of threats against Rushdie and a bounty on his head offering more than $3 million US to anyone who kills him.

After the attack, spectators were ushered out of the outdoor amphitheatre. Rabbi Charles Savenor was among the roughly 2,500 people in the audience.

"This guy ran on to 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 the attack lasted about 20 seconds.

Another spectator, Kathleen James, said the attacker was dressed in black and wore 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," she said, noting it soon became evident that it was no stunt.

WATCH | New York Gov. Kathy Hochul gives update on Salman Rushdie's status:
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul provides a brief update on Salman Rushdie's status after the novelist was attacked on stage prior to giving a speech.

Matar, like other visitors, had obtained a pass to enter the institution's 303-hectare grounds, the president of the organization, Michael Hill, said.

The suspect's attorney, public defender Nathaniel Barone, said he was still gathering information and declined to comment. Matar's home was blocked off by authorities.

Rushdie has been a prominent spokesman for free expression and liberal causes, and the literary world recoiled at what novelist and Rushdie friend Ian McEwan described as "an assault on freedom of thought and speech."

"Salman has been an inspirational defender of persecuted writers and journalists across the world," McEwan said in a statement. "He is a fiery and generous spirit, a man of immense talent and courage and he will not be deterred."

PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said the organization didn't know of any comparable act of violence against a literary writer in the U.S. Rushdie was once president of the group, which advocates for writers and free expression.

Death threats followed novel

Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses, first published in 1988, was viewed as blasphemous by many Muslims. Often-violent protests against Rushdie erupted around the world, including a riot that killed 12 people in Mumbai.

The novel was banned in Iran, where the late leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie's death in 1989. Khomeini died that same year.

Soon after, a wave of violence followed. Also in 1989, four bombs were placed outside of Penguin bookshops, one of which exploded in Northern England — Penguin being the British publisher of The Satanic Verses.

In 1991, The Satanic Verses' Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was beaten and suffered knife wounds by a man who said he was Iranian. Less than two weeks later, Hitoshi Igarashi — who translated the book into Japanese — was stabbed to death by an attacker in Tokyo.

Iran's current leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has never withdrawn the fatwa, though in recent years, Iran 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.

Rushdie committed to freedom of expression

The death threats and bounty led Rushdie to go into hiding under a British government protection program, including 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.

Novelist and professor of English at the University of Toronto Randy Boyagoda — who says he has interviewed Rushdie numerous times — said Rushdie's commitment to freedom of expression is what guides his career.

He said that while the public focus on Satanic Verses and the violence and controversy that surrounds it is likely a "source of frustration" for Rushdie, he continues to speak publicly about the book, and the danger artists can face for speaking out, in order to champion the power of the written word.

"Here is someone who was not romantic about it — like, frankly, many of us are — but in fact, put his own life on the line to continue with his work," Boyagoda said.

Rushdie himself has said he is proud of his fight for freedom of expression, saying at 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.

Fatwa still stands

Iran's government has long since distanced itself from Khomeini's decree, but anti-Rushdie sentiment has lingered.

The Index on Censorship, an organization promoting free expression, said money was raised to boost the reward for his killing as recently as 2016, underscoring the fact that the fatwa for his death still stands.

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 about life under the fatwa, titled Joseph Anton, which was the pseudonym he used while in hiding.

WATCH | In 2012, Rushdie spoke to CBC about his life in hiding:
Acclaimed author revisits his decade in hiding, while under threat of death by religious extremists, in his new memoir Joseph Anton.

Though the author rose to prominence with his Booker Prize-winning 1981 novel Midnight's Children, 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 in 2008, and earlier this year was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour, 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."

Appalled that Sir Salman Rushdie has been stabbed while exercising a right we should never cease to defend. <br><br>Right now my thoughts are with his loved ones. We are all hoping he is okay.


The Chautauqua Institution, about 90 kilometres 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.

The Chautauqua centre is known for its summertime lecture series, where Rushdie has spoken before.

At an evening vigil, a few hundred residents and visitors gathered for prayer, music and a long moment of silence.

"Hate can't win," one man shouted.

With files from the CBC's Thomas Daigle and CBC News

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