Salman Rushdie, the Bombay-born novelist who spent years in hiding after Iran urged Muslims to kill him because of his writing, was stabbed in the neck and torso onstage at a lecture in New York state on Friday and airlifted to a hospital, police said. The alleged attacker has been taken into custody.
Following hours of surgery, Rushdie was on a ventilator and unable to speak as of Friday evening. “The news is not good,” Andrew Wylie, his book agent, wrote in an email, reported news agency AP. “Salman will likely lose one eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged.” The 75-year-old author was to address a large audience on the topic of artistic freedom when the incident took place. Eyewitnesses said the attacker rushed to the stage at New York’s Chautauqua Institution and lunged at the novelist, stabbing him multiple times.
Rushdie was born into a Muslim Kashmiri family in Bombay and moved to the UK. He has long faced death threats for his fourth novel, ‘The Satanic Verses,’ most prominently from Iran’s powerful cleric and leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who had pronounced a fatwa calling upon Muslims to kill the novelist.
Minutes after author Salman Rushdie was stabbed on Friday, police took a 24-year-old man into custody. Rushdie, an Indian-origin best-selling author based in the UK, was attacked at a book event at New York’s Chautauqua Institution on Friday evening. Eyewitnesses said the incident occurred minutes after the author took his seat on the stage and was about to be introduced.
The 75-year-old, who was born in Bombay, has faced Islamist death threats for years for writing the novel ‘The Satanic Verses’. The book was banned shortly after publication in several countries, including India, and triggered a fatwa against Rushdie by Iran’s then Supreme Leader.
“A man jumped up on the stage from I don’t know where and started what looked like beating him on the chest, repeated fist strokes into his chest and neck,” Bradley Fisher, who was in the audience, told news agency Reuters. Shortly afterwards, the attacker was taken into police custody. Here’s what we know of him.
Who stabbed Salman Rushdie?
Law enforcement officials have identified the attacker as Hadi Matar. The 24-year-old man reportedly hails from New Jersey.
Police did not describe the weapon used. They said they have not zeroed in on the motive. “But we are working with the FBI, the Sheriff’s Office and we will determine what the cause of this was and what the motive for this attack was,” said Major Eugene Staniszewski of the New York State Police, reported PTI.
How the events unfolded
Staniszewski said at 10.47 am local time (8.17 pm IST), Rushdie had just arrived on stage at the Chautauqua Institution for the event.
“Shortly thereafter, the suspect jumped onto the stage and attacked Rushdie, stabbing him at least once in the neck and at least once in the abdomen,” he said.
Staniszewski said several members of the staff at the institution and audience members rushed the suspect and took him to the ground. A trooper with the New York State Police, who was at the institution, took the suspect into custody with the assistance of a Chautauqua County Sheriff’s deputy.
Photographs showed a man, wearing an army fatigue shirt and jacket and sporting a buzzcut being frog-marched to a police vehicle.
Where is Matar from?
While addressing a press conference, Staniszewski was asked of Matar’s nationality, to which he replied: “I don’t know yet.”
He said authorities are in the “process of obtaining search warrants for various items. There was a backpack located at the scene. There was also electronic devices”. He added that at the moment, it is assumed that the suspect was “working alone”.
Rushdie was provided with immediate help by a doctor who was present in the audience, and was later tended to by the emergency services and airlifted to a hospital, said the police.
Institution rejected past security recommendations, sources say
The leadership at the Chautauqua Institution, the venue hosting the event, rejected past recommendations to increase security at events, two sources told CNN.
The sources — both with direct knowledge of the security situation at Chautauqua and past recommendations — spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The recommendations for basic security measures, such as bag checks and metal detectors, were rejected because the leadership feared it would create a divide between speakers and the audience, and would change the culture at Chautauqua. It’s unclear whether those security measures would have prevented the attack on Rushdie based on what is currently known about the incident, including the weapon used.
One witness of the attack told CNN there were no security searches or metal detectors at the event. The witness is not being identified because they expressed concerns for their personal safety.
CNN reached out to the Chautauqua Institution and its leadership for comment but did not receive a response.
On its website, Chautauqua says their security protocols may tighten “depending on artist and speaker requirements.” They instruct guests to carry only small bags or clear plastic bags.
“While these restrictions may not be enforced at all events, we do anticipate they may be required in some circumstances this year and, in the future, they may be standard protocol for all events,” the Institution says.
The suspect in Friday’s attack had a “pass to access the grounds,” Dr. Michael E. Hill, president of the Chautauqua Institution, said in the news conference. Guests can purchase passes to attend programs, Hill added.
Hill defended the institution’s measures, saying, “We assess for every event what we think the appropriate security level is, and this one was certainly one that we thought was important which is why we had a State Trooper and Sheriff presence there,” he said.
Staniszewski said there was no indication of any threat to the event and the state trooper was there because the event was a mass gathering and because of a request by the institution.
What witnesses say happened
Rushdie was being introduced at about 10:45 a.m. when the assault happened, according to a witness, who said he heard shouting from the audience. He said a man in a black shirt appeared to be “punching” the author. The witness, who was 75 feet from the stage, did not hear the attacker say anything or see a weapon.
Some people in the audience ran to render aid while others went after the attacker, the witness said. State police said a doctor who was in the audience during the event rendered aid to Rushdie until emergency responders arrived.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul told reporters Friday a state trooper “stood up and saved (Rushdie’s) life and protected him as well as the moderator who was attacked as well.
“Here is an individual who has spent decades speaking truth to power,” the governor said of Rushdie. “Someone who has been out there unafraid, despite the threats that have followed him his entire adult life it seems.”
Joyce Lussier, 83, who was in the second row of the amphitheater during the attack, said Rushdie and Reese had taken a seat on the right-hand side of the stage when suddenly, a man who appeared to be in all black “lurched across the stage and got right to Mr. Rushdie.”
“He came in the left side and leapt across the stage and just lunged at him. In, I don’t know, two seconds he was across that stage,” Lussier said. She added she could hear people screaming and crying and saw people from the audience rushing up to the stage.
“They caught him right away, he did not get off the stage at all,” Lussier said of the suspect. Shortly after, the crowd was asked to evacuate, she added.
Another witness, a longtime Chautauqua resident who asked not to be identified, recalled a commotion on stage and a man making about seven to 10 stabbing motions in the direction of the author, who was in a half-standing position. She said she fled the open-air amphitheater “shaking like a leaf” in fear.