Chautauqua, NY – Salman Rushdie, the USA Today bestselling author whose writing has previously received death threats, was attacked Friday as he was about to give a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York, suffering stab wounds to the neck and abdomen.
Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie of The Wylie Agency, said the writer was on a ventilator Friday evening, with a damaged liver, a severed nerve in an arm and the possibility of losing an eye.
A state trooper assigned to the incident took a suspect into custody after the attack, New York police said. The suspect was identified as 24-year-old Hadi Matar of Fairview, New Jersey, according to New York State Police Maj. Eugene Staniszewski at a news conference Friday afternoon.
He was arrested after the attack and charged with attempted second-degree murder and second-degree assault. The mother entered a not guilty plea during a sentencing hearing in New York court on Saturday.
An attorney appeared on behalf of the suspect. Matar appeared in court wearing a black and white jumpsuit and a white mask. His hands were tied in front of him.
Earlier on Friday, New York Gov. Cathy Hochul said in a statement that Rushdie “is a man who has spoken truth to power for decades. Someone who has not been intimidated by threats that have followed him his entire adult life, it seems.”
Travis Seward, general manager of 10 Best at USA Today, was at the event. He saw a man “bound” towards the stage from the audience “waving his arms”. Seward said he did not hear the man scream and that Rushdie tried to get away from the attacker and fell.
“It’s really uncomfortable for everybody here,” Seward said. “It’s a peaceful place and it was unexpected.”
Rushdie was airlifted to a hospital, police said, and “the interviewer suffered minor head injuries.” Staniszewske said the interviewee was treated and released from the hospital.
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According to a statement emailed to USA Today, the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit educational center, “is currently coordinating with law enforcement and emergency officials for public response.”
Suzanne Nossel, CEO of Penn America, a nonprofit that works to protect free expression through literature and human rights advancement, said in an emailed statement Friday that Rushdie “has been targeted for his words.”
“PEN America is shocked and horrified at the news of a brutal, premeditated attack on our former president and staunch ally, Salman Rushdie,” Nossell said. “We can think of no comparable violent public attack on a writer on American soil. … We hope and firmly believe that his essential voice cannot and will not be silenced.”
Rushdie is an Indian-born British-American novelist. He has written more than a dozen books, and six of his novels are USA Today best sellers. His book “The Satanic Verses” has been banned in Iran since the late 1980s and is considered blasphemous by many Muslims. History.com states, “The book mocks, or at least mocks, a character clearly based on the Supreme Leader of Iran, in addition to other aspects of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.”
After the book was published, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death.
The Iranian government had long distanced itself from Khomeini’s decree, but anti-Rushdi sentiment remained. In 2012, a semi-governmental Iranian religious foundation increased its donation to Rushdie from $2.8 million to $3.3 million.
It is unclear whether the order was linked to Friday’s attack.
Rushdie rejected the threat at the time. That year, Rushdie published “Joseph Anton”, a memoir about the fatwa.
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Colin Lowe, 65, of Gros Ile, Michigan, visited Chautauqua for the first time this week and sat about 20 rows from the stage where Rushdie was attacked. He said the attacker was dressed in black and had a “black stocking or something like that” covering his face.
“It was such a shock that it was happening in front of us, and people just started yelling, ‘No! No!’ ” she said.
Lough is an Episcopal chaplain and volunteers at nearby Hurlbut Church, ministering to anyone who needs help coping with what they’ve seen.
“No one should ever fear danger or violence for saying what they think,” he said. “Even in these political times, when many of us disagree, everyone should be able to say what they think and discuss it. That’s without fear of violence.”
President of Chautauqua Institution. Michael E. Hill said at Friday’s press conference that the center will not influence how it chooses its speakers.
“It’s been a part of his whole life, putting out ideas. He’s known as one of the most prominent champions of free speech. And I think the worst thing Chautauqua could do is walk away from its mission in light of that. That’s a tragedy, and I don’t think so.” Mr. Rushdie would want that too,” Hill said.
Rushdie’s most recent novel, “Quixote,” was published in 2019 In it, Rushdie satirizes former President Donald Trump’s America with a modern-day Don Quixote in his spin on the Miguel de Cervantes classic. The book was longlisted for the Booker Prize.
In 2023, the author is expected to release “City of Victory: A Novel,” which follows a woman who “breathes into existence an imaginary empire, only to be swallowed up by it over the centuries,” according to the book’s description.
Contributing: Kristen Schamus, Detroit Free Press, USA TODAY Network; Joshua Goodman, Associated Press
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