Salman Rushdie, the renowned novelist whose work made him the subject of death threats, was attacked at an event in Chautauqua, N.Y., on Friday by a man who stormed the stage and stabbed the writer in the neck and abdomen, police said.
A New York State trooper who was next to the stage took Hadi Matar, 24, of New Jersey into custody at the scene. Matar was charged with attempted murder and assault and is being held at Chautauqua County Jail. He will be arraigned on Saturday.
Law enforcement officials have not yet determined a motive, Maj. Eugene Staniszewski of the New York State Police said, and are working with the local district attorney to decide which criminal charges will be filed. The FBI is also involved in the investigation.
In an instant Friday morning, a literary event in a lakeside town in Western New York was transformed into a scene of potentially deadly violence, drawing gasps from the audience gathered in an open-air amphitheater.
Thousands of people had gathered to hear Rushdie, a world-famous author who became a symbol for freedom of expression after an Iranian leader called for his execution in the 1980s.
The incident occurred around 11 a.m., when Rushdie was scheduled to speak with an interviewer, Henry Reese, for a summer lecture series at the Chautauqua Institution, which draws some of the world’s most prominent authors, politicians and scientists.
Rushdie, 75, had just taken his seat onstage and a member of the Chautauqua Institution’s staff was introducing the event when witnesses said a man ran onto the stage from the side and attacked Rushdie and Reese, who suffered a facial injury but was later released from the hospital. A doctor in the audience provided assistance to Rushdie before paramedics arrived.
Carl LeVan, a professor at American University who was in the audience with his sister, said he saw the attacker stab Rushdie “repeatedly, with determination” and saw the author fall to the floor.
Security personnel ran onto the stage as members of the audience gasped, screamed and began to take pictures. LeVan said attendees also climbed onto the stage to try to help. One of the people who tried to subdue the assailant was an 86-year-old who suffered a cut on his hand, according to a friend who was present but did not want to be publicly identified.
Witnesses said they saw blood on the floor of the stage. Less than an hour after the event, LeVan said he was still physically shaking from witnessing what he called “a horrific act of intolerance.”
Audience members said there were no security checks before entering the event. The suspect was in possession of a pass to enter the grounds like other members of the audience, an official from the venue said. Staniszewski said a backpack and electronic devices were recovered from the scene of the attack.
Judy Skillicorn was seated eight rows away from the stage with her husband. She saw Rushdie stand up, put out his arm to defend himself and struggle briefly with the attacker. Her husband, Robert, said the audience was in “pure shock” at what had unfolded.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) said that a state police officer had saved Rushdie’s life by halting the attack. She praised the swift response of the authorities to what she called a “horrific event,” adding that her thoughts were with Rushdie’s family and loved ones.
Rushdie, an Indian-born writer who spent much of his life in Britain, has faced death threats for decades after the 1988 publication of “The Satanic Verses.” The book — a complex novel that uses magical realism and begins with a hijacked plane exploding over the English Channel — made controversial references to Muhammad, Islam and the Quran. Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a call, or fatwa, for the author’s execution soon after its publication, saying the treatment of Islam and Muhammad in the novel was blasphemous.
For years afterward, Rushdie traveled with guards and kept his location secret. “The Satanic Verses” was banned in several countries and led to worldwide protests. Book stores and people connected to the book around the world, such as publishers, were attacked. Its Japanese translator was killed in 1991.
By 1998, Iran’s then-president Mohammad Khatami, considered a reformer, seemed to distance the government from the fatwa against Rushdie, saying it was “completely finished.” But in Iran, the ayatollah is the supreme leader and has final say in most of the country’s matters, including the religious edict. By 2005, Khomeini’s successor, Ali Khamenei, said the fatwa was still valid, and in 2016, state-run media outlets added $600,000 to the bounty on Rushdie’s head, bringing it to well over $3 million.
In recent years, Rushdie, who moved to New York in the early 2000s and became an American citizen in 2016, has appeared at events without visible guards protecting him, including at such massive annual literary events as the National Book Festival in Washington.
Friday’s attack on Rushdie stunned free speech advocates and organizations.
“We can think of no comparable incident of a public violent attack on a literary writer on American soil,” PEN America chief executive Suzanne Nossel said in a statement.
Nossel said Rushdie had emailed her around 7:45 a.m. on Friday to ask whether she knew any Ukrainian writers who might take part in a residency program for exiled and persecuted artists. The fellowships are offered by Reese’s organization, City of Asylum, and Rushdie had just learned about three new open spots.
Rushdie’s friends and fellow writers reacted with horror to Friday’s violence. “Like everyone who knows Salman, I have always been impressed by his courage, his integrity, his commitment to freedom of expression, and to the demands of his highly original, imaginative, provocative art,” said novelist Joyce Carol Oates. “It is shocking to learn of the attack on him.”
The violence against Rushdie is “one more attack on democratic values,” novelist Margaret Atwood said in a statement. “We are fond of saying ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.’ Surely the attack on Rushdie is a call to step up our vigilance.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “appalled” by the attack on Rushdie, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2007.
Appalled that Sir Salman Rushdie has been stabbed while exercising a right we should never cease to defend.— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) August 12, 2022
Right now my thoughts are with his loved ones. We are all hoping he is okay.
The stunning switch from an idyllic day in Upstate New York to a paroxysm of violence reverberated through the audience. Joan Rosenthal, 84, has spent each summer in Chautauqua for the past four decades and had heard Rushdie speak there once before.
She saw the commotion and watched audience members try to stop the attack. She said she was aghast and in shock.
People in attendance were told to evacuate the venue after the attack. Sam Peters, 19, saw the incident unfold from the upper level of the amphitheater. Afterward, he said the mood was one of disbelief. Several of the attendees were in tears.
The Chautauqua Institution canceled all remaining events for the day and asked people to pray for Rushdie and Reese.
We ask for your prayers for Salman Rushdie and Henry Reese, and patience as we fully focus on coordinating with police officials following a tragic incident at the Amphitheater today. All programs are canceled for the remainder of the day. Please consult the NYS Police statement.— Chautauqua Institution (@chq) August 12, 2022
Peters, who visits the Chautauqua festival every year, was not familiar with Rushdie’s work but had heard about the death threats the author received. “I went to the talk to find out why people would want to kill someone for their writing,” he said. “I don’t know why he wasn’t better protected.”
Mary Newsom in Chautauqua, N.Y., and Meryl Kornfield in Washington contributed to this report.