Written by David Gelles & Elizabeth A Harris
Author Salman Rushdie, who spent years in hiding and under police protection after Iranian officials called for his execution 33 years ago, was attacked and stabbed in the neck on Friday while onstage in Chautauqua, western New York, the state police said.
The attack happened at about 11 am, shortly after Rushdie took 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.
Rushdie was taken by helicopter to a local hospital, the state police said in a statement. His condition is not yet known. It was not clear what motivated the attacker.
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. But she said he appeared to be alive. “People were saying, ‘He has a pulse, he has a pulse he has a pulse,’” Landman said.
— Charles Savenor (@CharlieSavenor) August 12, 2022
Suzanne Nossel, the 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.”
“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,” she said in a statement. “Salman Rushdie has been targeted for his words for decades but has never flinched nor faltered.”
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 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 United States 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, the co-founder of a Pittsburgh nonprofit, 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.
Salman Rushdie, who was stabbed at an event in New York, is being flown to hospital. No word on his condition pic.twitter.com/zQmOZH1jvG
— BNO News (@BNONews) August 12, 2022
Governor Kathy Hochul of New York said on Twitter that she had directed the state police to assist in the investigation and that “our thoughts are with Salman and his loved ones following this horrific event”.
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 Iranian government publicly backed the fatwa for 10 years, until at least 1998, when Iran’s then 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 has 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 afterward.