CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. (WIVB) — A New Jersey man is in custody after author Salman Rushdie was attacked Friday morning on-stage at the Chautauqua Institution and airlifted for medical treatment.
Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, told the Associated Press that the author is on a ventilator and has sustained damage to his liver, has severed nerves in his arm and Rushdie may lose an eye.
Rushdie, an author whose writing led to death threats from Iran in the 1980s, was about to be interviewed at 11 a.m. when suspect Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, N.J. charged the amphitheater stage. He stabbed the 75-year-old at least once in the neck and at least once in the abdomen, New York State Police said.
According to NBC4 New York, Matar’s social media was “sympathetic” to the Iranian government. However, it is unclear if these is a connection between the two. The BBC said that Facebook has taken down the account believed to be owned by the 24-year-old. It featured images of Ruhollah Khomeini, the first supreme leader of Iran as well as his successor Ali Khameini.
Several Institution staffers and the audience took Matar to the ground and he was taken into custody by an New York State Police Tropper assigned to the event. A doctor in the audience provided medical treatment to Rushdie until emergency crews arrived.
Moderator Ralph Henry Reese was also attacked and suffered a minor head injury.
Rushdie was airlifted to UPMC Hamot in Erie, Pa., where he’s undergoing surgery. Reese was rushed by ambulance to a local hospital for treatment of a facial injury and was released, NYSP said.
NYSP is being assisted by the FBI and Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office. The Federal Bureau of Investigations is also assisting and a federal agent with the Transnational Organized Crime Unit was seen at the Jamestown NYSP Barracks.
A backpack and electronics were found at the scene of the attack. NYSP said they’re working to get a search warrant to learn more about the contents of these items.
President of the Chautauqua Institution Dr. Michael E. Hill called on the community to support Rushdie and Reese. He sent the message that speakers like Rushdie will return to their podiums and pulpits at the Institution.
“What we experienced at Chautauqua today is an incident unlike anything in our nearly 150-year history. We were founded to bring people together in community to learn,” Hill said. “And in doing so, to create solutions through action to develop empathy and to take on intractable problems. Today now, we’re called to take on fear and the worst of all human traits — hate. Our job right now, though, is to continue to support police and others, to be a resource for Mr. Rushdie and Mr. Reese’s family. And to begin to imagine a pathway to healing.”
Hill said the Institution was on lockdown for a short period of time, but has since reopened to pass holders.
As for security, Hill said the Institution will add more safety measures on a case-by-case basis. Hill says they are in close contact with law enforcement and included this additional security for specific events. A New York State Police Trooper was on scene for the lecture on Friday.
Watch the news conference from New York State Police in the above video player.
Hochul thanked State Police for their response and offered her thoughts for Rushdie and his loved ones.
“Thank you to the swift response of @nyspolice & first responders following today’s attack of author Salman Rushdie,” Hochul said. “Our thoughts are with Salman & his loved ones following this horrific event. I have directed State Police to further assist however needed in the investigation.”
Author Stephen King tweeted, “I hope Salman Rushdie is okay.”
Chautauqua Institute president Michael E. Hill said in a statement: “Chautauqua is a community of people of all faiths and none. Our collective family is holding Mr. Rushdie and Mr. Reese, as well their families, close in prayer. We have been in touch with their families, and I was grateful to spend a very brief amount of time with Mr. Reese this evening.
What we experienced at Chautauqua today is unlike anything in our 150-year history. It was an act of violence, an act of hatred and a violation of one of the things we have always cherished most: the safety and tranquility of our grounds and our ability to convene the most important conversations, even if those conversations are difficult.
But today was an also an attack on an ideal we cherish: that freedom of speech and freedom of expression are hallmarks to our society and to our democracy, they are the very underpinnings of who we are and what we believe, what we cherish most.”
History of threats
Rushdie’s 1988 book “The Satanic Verses” was viewed as blasphemous by many Muslims. Often-violent protests against Rushdie erupted around the world, including a riot that killed 12 people in Mumbai.
The novel was banned in Iran, where the late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a 1989 fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death.
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The death threats and bounty led Rushdie to go into hiding under a British government protection program, including 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.
Iran’s government has long since distanced itself from Khomeini’s decree, but anti-Rushdie sentiment has lingered. The Index on Censorship, an organization promoting free expression, said money was raised to boost the reward for his killing as recently as 2016, underscoring that the fatwa for his death still stands.
Rushdie has been a prominent spokesman for free expression and liberal causes. He is a former president of PEN America, which said it was “reeling from shock and horror” at the attack.
Hear Gov. Kathy Hochul’s remarks on the attack in the video player above.
“We can think of no comparable incident of a public violent attack on a literary writer on American soil,” CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement.
“Salman Rushdie has been targeted for his words for decades but has never flinched nor faltered,” she added.
The American Jewish Committee condemned the attack, believing it was “connected to the Iranian ‘fatwa’ calling for his execution.”
“It is one more link in the chain of murder and attempted murder that originates in Tehran under the mullahs,” the committee said in a statement. “For decades, we’ve seen hard evidence of Iran’s sponsorship of terror, from the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut to the Israeli Embassy and AMIA bombings in Buenos Aires, the Mykonos restaurant killings in Berlin, and just in recent days the thwarted attack against Iranian women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad, and the assassination plot against former National Security Adviser John Bolton. Now, Salman Rushdie has fallen victim to the violence and intolerance Iran inspires and encourages. We must all condemn egregious attacks like this, as we wish him a swift recovery.”
In 2012, Rushdie published a memoir, “Joseph Anton,” about the fatwa. The title came from the pseudonym Rushdie had used while in hiding.
Rushdie rose to prominence with his Booker Prize-winning 1981 novel “Midnight’s Children,” but his name became known around the world after “The Satanic Verses.”
The Chautauqua Institution, about 55 miles southwest of Buffalo in a rural corner of New York, is known for its summertime lecture series. Rushdie has spoken there before.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.