Salman Rushdie on ventilator support, may lose eye

Updated on Aug 14, 2022 05:18 AM IST

The author of “The Satanic Verses”, which sparked fury among some Muslims who believed it was blasphemous, was airlifted to hospital for emergency surgery following the attack at a literary event in New York state on Friday.

Law enforcement officers detain the attacker outside the Chautauqua Institution. (AP)
Law enforcement officers detain the attacker outside the Chautauqua Institution. (AP)
ByAgencies, New York

Salman Rushdie, who spent years in hiding after an Iranian fatwa ordered his killing, was on a ventilator and could lose an eye following a stabbing attack at a literary event in New York state on Friday.

The author of “The Satanic Verses”, which sparked fury among some Muslims who believed it was blasphemous, was airlifted to hospital for emergency surgery following the attack.

His agent said in a statement obtained by The New York Times that “the news is not good.”

“Salman will likely lose one eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged,” said agent Andrew Wylie, who added that Rushdie could not speak.

Carl LeVan, an American University politics professor attending the literary event, told AFP that the assailant rushed onto the stage where Rushdie was seated and “stabbed him repeatedly and viciously”.

Attack on Rushdie
Attack on Rushdie

Several people ran to the stage and took the suspect to the ground before a trooper present at the event arrested him. A doctor in the audience administered medical care until emergency first responders arrived.

New York state police identified the attacker as Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old from Fairfield, New Jersey, adding that he stabbed Rushdie in the neck as well as the abdomen. He has been charged with attempted murder and assault, prosecutors said on Saturday.

“The individual responsible for the attack yesterday, Hadi Mattar, has now been formally charged with Attempted Murder in the Second Degree and Assault in the Second Degree,” Chautauqua County District Attorney Jason Schmidt said in a statement.

“He was arraigned on these charges last night and remanded without bail,” the statement added.

Matar was born in the United States to Lebanese parents who emigrated from Yaroun, a border village in southern Lebanon, Mayor Ali Tehfe told The Associated Press. His birth was a decade after “The Satanic Verses” first was published.

The motive for the attack was unclear, State Police Maj. Eugene Staniszewski said.

An interviewer onstage, 73-year-old Ralph Henry Reese, suffered a facial injury but has been released from hospital, police said. He and Rushdie had planned to discuss the United States as a refuge for writers and other artists in exile.

The attack took place at the Chautauqua Institution, which hosts arts programs in a tranquil lakeside community 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of Buffalo city.

“What many of us witnessed today was a violent expression of hate that shook us to our core,” the Chautauqua Institution said in a statement.

LeVan, a Chautauqua regular, said the suspect “was trying to stab him as many times as possible before he was subdued”, adding that he believed the man “was trying to kill” Rushdie.

“There were gasps of horror and panic from the crowd,” the professor said.

Rushdie, 75, was propelled into the spotlight with his second novel “Midnight’s Children” in 1981, which won international praise and Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for its portrayal of post-Independence India.

But his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, was viewed as blasphemous by many Muslims, who saw a character as an insult to the Prophet Muhammad, among other objections. The book was banned in Iran, where the late leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a 1989 fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death.

Conservative media in Iran hailed Friday’s attack on Rushdie, with one state-owned paper saying the “neck of the devil” had been “cut by a razor”.

Ultra-conservative newspaper Kayhan, whose chief is appointed by current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wrote: “Bravo to this courageous and duty-conscious man who attacked the apostate and depraved Salman Rushdie in New York.”

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 decades of 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, Michael Hill, the institution’s president, 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.

After the publication of “The Satanic Verses”, often-violent protests erupted across the Muslim world against Rushdie, who was born in India to non-practicing Muslims and identifies as an atheist.

At least 45 people were killed in riots over the book, including 12 people in Rushdie’s hometown of Mumbai in 1989. 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.

Khomeini died the same year he issued the fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, never issued a fatwa of his own withdrawing the edict, though Iran in recent years hasn’t focused on the writer.

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.

Now living in New York, he is an advocate of freedom of speech, notably launching a strong defense of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo after its staff were gunned down by Islamists in Paris in 2015.

The magazine had published drawings of Mohammed that drew furious reactions from Muslims worldwide.

Charlie Hebdo said nothing justified the stabbing of Rushdie.

Global leaders voiced anger over the attack, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying the author “embodied freedom” and that “his battle is ours, a universal one.”

British leader Boris Johnson said he was “appalled,” sending thoughts to Rushdie’s loved ones and praising the author for “exercising a right we should never cease to defend.”

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called it a “reprehensible attack,” adding that “all of us in the Biden-Harris Administration are praying for his speedy recovery.”

Threats and boycotts continue against literary events that Rushdie attends, and his knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 2007 sparked protests in Iran and Pakistan, where a government minister said the honor justified suicide bombings.

“Midnight’s Children” — which runs to more than 600 pages — has been adapted for the stage and silver screen, and his books have been translated into more than 40 languages.

Suzanne Nossel, head of the PEN America organization, said the free speech advocacy group was “reeling from shock and horror”.

“Just hours before the attack, on Friday morning, Salman had emailed me to help with placements for Ukrainian writers in need of safe refuge from the grave perils they face,” Nossel said in a statement.

“Our thoughts and passions now lie with our dauntless Salman, wishing him a full and speedy recovery. We hope and believe fervently that his essential voice cannot and will not be silenced.”

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