Salman Rushdie on ventilator after stabbing, may lose an eye; attacker charged
Rushdie’s alleged attacker, Hadi Matar, was due in court to face attempted murder and assault charges.
MAYVILLE, N.Y. — Salman Rushdie remained hospitalized Saturday after suffering serious injuries in a stabbing attack, which was met with shock and outrage from much of the world, along with tributes and praise for the award-winning author who for more than 30 years has faced death threats for his novel “The Satanic Verses.”
Rushdie, 75, suffered a damaged liver, severed nerves in an arm and an eye, and was on a ventilator and unable to speak, his agent Andrew Wylie said Friday evening. Rushdie was likely to lose the injured eye.
Rushdie’s alleged attacker, Hadi Matar, appeared in court Saturday to face attempted murder and assault charges, authorities said. He entered a not-guilty plea.
Authors, activists and government officials condemned the attack and cited Rushdie’s courage for his longtime advocacy of free speech despite the risks to his own safety. Rushdie’s fellow author and longtime friend Ian McEwan called him “an inspirational defender of persecuted writers and journalists across the world,” and the actor-author Kal Penn cited him as a role model “for an entire generation of artists, especially many of us in the South Asian diaspora toward whom he’s shown incredible warmth.”
Matar, 24, was arrested after the attack at the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit education and retreat center where Rushdie was scheduled to speak.
Authorities said Matar is from Fairview, New Jersey. He was born in the United States to Lebanese parents who emigrated from Yaroun, a border village in southern Lebanon, the mayor of the village, Ali Tehfe, told The Associated Press. Flags of Iran-backed Shia militant group Hezbollah and portraits of leader Hassan Nasrallah, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his late predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and slain Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani are visible across the village. The village also boasts a small Christian population.
Rushdie, a native of India who has since lived in Britain and the U.S., is known for his surreal and satirical prose style, beginning with his Booker Prize-winning novel from 1981, “Midnight’s Children,” in which he sharply criticized India’s then-prime minister, Indira Gandhi.
“The Satanic Verses” drew death threats after it was published in 1988, with many Muslims regarding as blasphemy a dream sequence based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, among other objections. Rushdie’s book had already been banned and burned in India, Pakistan and elsewhere before Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a 1989 fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death.
Khomeini died the same year he issued the fatwa, which remains in effect. Iran’s current supreme leader, Khamenei, never issued a fatwa of his own withdrawing the edict, though Iran in recent years hasn’t focused on the writer.
Investigators were working to determine whether the assailant, born a decade after “The Satanic Verses” was published, acted alone.
Journalists present in Yaroun, the village where the suspect’s parents emigrated from, were asked to leave Saturday. Hezbollah spokespeople did not respond to the AP’s inquiries about Matar and the attack on Rushdie.
Iran’s theocratic government and its state-run media assigned no rationale for the assault. In Tehran, some Iranians interviewed by the AP praised the attack on an author they believe tarnished the Islamic faith, while others worried it would further isolate their country.
An AP reporter witnessed the attacker confront Rushdie on stage and stab or punch him 10 to 15 times as the author was being introduced. 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 had planned to discuss the United States as a refuge for writers and other artists in exile.
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 center questioned why there wasn’t tighter security for the event, given the threats against Rushdie and a bounty on his head offering more than $3 million to anyone who killed him.
Matar, like other visitors, had obtained a pass to enter the Chautauqua Institution’s 750-acre grounds, said Michael Hill, the institution’s president.
Rabbi Charles Savenor was among the roughly 2,500 people in the audience for Rushdie’s appearance.
The assailant ran onto 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. He said the attack lasted about 20 seconds.
Another spectator, Kathleen James, said the attacker was dressed in black, with a black mask.
Amid gasps, spectators were ushered out of the outdoor amphitheater.
The stabbing reverberated from the tranquil town of Chautauqua to the United Nations, which issued a statement expressing U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ horror and stressing that free expression and opinion should not be met with violence.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday’s attack, which led an evening news bulletin on Iranian state television. From the White House, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan described the attack as “reprehensible” and said the Biden administration wished Rushdie a quick recovery.
After the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” often-violent protests erupted across the Muslim world against Rushdie, who was born in India to a Muslim family and has long identified as a non-believer, once calling himself “a hard-line atheist.”
At least 45 people were killed in riots over the book, including 12 people in Rushdie’s hometown of Mumbai. In 1991, a Japanese translator of the book was stabbed to death and an Italian translator survived a knife attack. In 1993, the book’s Norwegian publisher was shot three times and survived.
The death threats and bounty led Rushdie to go into hiding under a British government protection program, which included 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.
In 2012, Rushdie published a memoir, “Joseph Anton,” about the fatwa. The title came from the pseudonym Rushdie used while in hiding. He said during a New York talk the same year the memoir came out that terrorism was really the art of fear.
“The only way you can defeat it is by deciding not to be afraid,” he said.
The Chautauqua Institution, about 55 miles (89 kilometers) 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. Most people leave the doors to their century-old cottages unlocked at night.
The center 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.
Italie reported from New York. Associated Press journalist Kareem Chehayeb contributed to this report from Beirut.