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Celebrated author on ventilator after attack

Author Salman Rushdie stabbed onstage in New York

Governor Kathy Hochul says novelist is alive and 'getting care he needs'
Author Salman Rushdie is tended to after he was attacked in Chautauqua in western New York on Friday.
Author Salman Rushdie is tended to after he was attacked in Chautauqua in western New York on Friday.
AP/PTI picture

David Gelles, Elizabeth Harris   |   New York   |   Published 13.08.22, 02:37 AM

  • “The news is not good,” the author’s agent, Andrew Wylie, said in an emailed update. He said Mr. Rushdie might lose an eye and his liver had been damaged. The celebrated author, who has long faced death threats, was stabbed in the neck and abdomen by a 24-year old New Jersey man. A motive was unclear, reports The New York Times

Salman Rushdie, the India-born author who spent years in hiding and under police protection after Iranian officials called for his execution, was attacked and stabbed in the neck on Friday while onstage at Chautauqua in western New York, police said.

New York governor Kathy Hochul said Rushdie was alive and “getting the care he needs”, Reuters reported.

Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, said in an email that the writer was undergoing surgery.

Rushdie, 75, was taken by helicopter to a local hospital. The police did not give a motive for the attack and it was not clear what kind of weapon was used.

The attack happened around 11am in New York, shortly after Rushdie had taken the stage to deliver a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution, a community in western New York that offers arts and literary programming during the summer.

The author fell to the floor when the man attacked him, and was then surrounded by a small group of people who held up his legs, seemingly to send more blood to his upper body, as the attacker was restrained, according to a witness.

In a tweet on Friday afternoon, the Chautauqua Institution asked for people to pray for the wounded author and for the event’s moderator, who the police said was also injured.

Linda Abrams, who was sitting in the front row, said the assailant kept trying to attack Rushdie even after he was restrained. “It took like five men to pull him away and he was still stabbing,” she said.

“He was just furious, furious. Like intensely strong and just fast.”

Rita Landman, an endocrinologist who was in the audience, said that Rushdie had multiple stab wounds, including one to the right side of his neck, and that there was a pool of blood under his body.

She said he appeared to be alive. “People were saying, ‘He has a pulse, he has a pulse, he has a pulse’,” Landman said.

Suzanne Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America, which promotes free expression, said that “we can think of no comparable incident of a public attack on a literary writer on American soil”.

Rushdie spent about 10 years under police protection, living in hiding after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, called for his execution in 1989 because his novel, The Satanic Verses, was considered offensive to Islam. The book was banned in India, where he was born, and he was barred from the country for more than a decade.

Rushdie had just come onstage to deliver the morning lecture at the 4,000-seat amphitheatre of the Chautauqua Institution, a gated community that features arts and literary programming each summer, when he was attacked, witnesses said.

He was there for a discussion about the US as a safe haven for exiled writers and other artists who are under the threat of persecution. The conversation was scheduled to be moderated by Henry Reese, co-founder of a Pittsburgh non-profit, City of Asylum, which is a residency programme for exiled writers.

Rushdie had just sat down and was being introduced when the assailant rushed the stage and assaulted him. “I could just see his fists sort of pounding on Salman,” one witness, Bill Vasu, 72, said.

A number of people rushed to Rushdie’s aid, Vasu said, and quickly pinned the attacker to the ground.

A trooper assigned to the event took the assailant into custody, the police said. The person interviewing Rushdie also suffered a minor head injury.

Rushdie became an American citizen in 2016 and lives in New York City. Rushdie has been a fierce critic of religion across the spectrum. He has been critical of oppression and violence in India, including that perpetrated under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the country’s largest Muslim civil rights group, said he was concerned people might rush to blame Muslims or Islam for the stabbing before the attacker’s identity or motive were publicly known. “American Muslims, like all Americans, condemn any violence targeting anyone in our society,” he said.

Several witnesses said the attacker was able to reach Rushdie easily, running onstage and approaching him from behind. “There was just one attacker,” said Elisabeth Healey, 75, who was in the audience. “He was dressed in black. He had a loose black garment on. He ran with lightning speed over to him.”

“It was very frightening and it gave me a pit in my stomach,” said Jane Bulette, 68, who has been coming for more than a decade. “How could they not have blocked off the stairs to the stage?”

“There was a huge security lapse,” said Bulette’s husband, John, 85, who witnessed the attack. “That somebody could get that close without any intervention was frightening.”

Kyle Doershuk, 20, was working as an usher at the amphitheatre at the time of the attack. He said he was about 15 feet away from the assailant as he began to rush the stage with a knife, after dropping a backpack. By the time Doershuk understood something was going wrong, the attack had begun.

Doershuk said security at the Institution is lax and that there did not appear to be any additional measures in place for Rushdie’s visit. “It’s very open, it’s very accessible, it’s a very relaxed environment,” he said. “In my opinion something like this was just waiting to happen.”

The Satanic Verses was considered blasphemous by some Muslims. Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989 ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie.

The Iranian government publicly backed the fatwa for a decade, until at least 1998, when Iran’s President, Mohammad Khatami, said Iran no longer supported the killing. But the fatwa remains in place, reportedly with a bounty attached from an Iranian religious foundation of some $3.3 million as of 2012.

Rushdie published a memoir, Joseph Anton, about the fatwa. The title came from the pseudonym he used while in hiding.

In recent years, Rushdie has enjoyed a more relaxed life in New York City. In 2019, he spoke at a private club in Manhattan to promote his novel, Quichotte. Security at the event was relaxed, and Rushdie mingled with guests freely and had dinner with members of the club afterwards.

In an interview last year, Rushdie was casual and easygoing as he spoke over Zoom from his Manhattan home, cheerfully talking about his thoughts on literature, Fellini’s childhood, and the peanut gallery on Twitter.

He had the informal air of someone who had long ago re-entered society and revelled in being a man about town. His latest obsession was hip hop, he said. Asked about the longstanding call for his death, he answered simply, “Oh, I have to live my life.”

A representative of the Iranian interests section at the embassy of Pakistan in Washington, DC, which diplomatically represents the government of Iran in the US, declined to comment on the attack. “We are not getting involved in this,” said the representative, who declined to give his name before he hung up.

‘Shock and horror’

Literary figures and public officials said they were shocked at the news that Rushdie had been stabbed onstage.

Nossel, the PEN America chief executive officer, said in a statement that the organisation’s members were “reeling from shock and horror”.

Rushdie is a former president of PEN America, which advocates writers’ freedom of expression around the world.

Nossel said Rushdie had emailed her hours before the attack to ask about helping Ukrainian writers in need of safe refuge.

“Salman Rushdie has been targeted for his words for decades, but has never flinched nor faltered,” she said. “He has devoted tireless energy to assisting others who are vulnerable and menaced.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement that he was appalled Rushdie was “stabbed while exercising a right we should never cease to defend”.

The author Neil Gaiman wrote on Twitter that he was “shocked and distressed” about the attack.

“He’s a good man and a brilliant one and I hope he’s okay,” he said.

Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York also spoke out on social media, calling the attack “shocking and appalling”.

“It is an attack on freedom of speech and thought, which are two bedrock values of our country and of the Chautauqua Institution,” Schumer wrote. “I hope Mr Rushdie quickly and fully recovers and the perpetrator experiences full accountability and justice.”

New York Times News Service and Reuters

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