Salman Rushdie in Hospital; Police Seek Motive in Stabbing

Salman Rushdie remained hospitalized Saturday after suffering serious injuries in a stabbing attack as praise poured in for him from the West but he was disparaged in Iran.

Rushdie, 75, suffered a damaged liver, severed nerves in an arm and an eye, and was on a ventilator, his agent Andrew Wylie said Friday evening. Rushdie was likely to lose the injured eye.

Police identified the suspect as Hadi Matar, 24. He was arrested after the attack at the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit education and retreat center where Rushdie was scheduled to speak.

Matar, of Fairview, New Jersey, 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.

Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” drew death threats after it was published in 1988. It 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.

Police said the motive for the Friday attack was unclear. Matar was born a decade after “The Satanic Verses” was first published. Investigators were working to determine whether the assailant acted alone.

Iran’s theocratic government and its state-run media assigned no rationale for the assault. In Tehran, some Iranians interviewed by the AP praised the attack on an author they believe tarnished the Islamic faith, while others worried it would further isolate their country.

An AP reporter witnessed the attacker confront Rushdie on stage and stab or punch him 10 to 15 times as the author was being introduced. Dr. Martin Haskell, a physician who was among those who rushed to help, described Rushdie’s wounds as “serious but recoverable.”

Event moderator Henry Reese, 73, a co-founder of an organization that offers residencies to writers facing persecution, was also attacked. Reese suffered a facial injury and was treated and released from a hospital, police said. He and Rushdie had planned to discuss the United States as a refuge for writers and other artists in exile.

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.

Rabbi Charles Savenor was among the roughly 2,500 people in the audience for Rushdie’s appearance.

The assailant ran onto the platform “and started pounding on Mr. Rushdie. At first you’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ And then it became abundantly clear in a few seconds that he was being beaten,” Savenor said. He said the attack lasted about 20 seconds.

Another spectator, Kathleen James, said the attacker was dressed in black, with a black mask.

Amid gasps, spectators were ushered out of the outdoor amphitheater.

The stabbing reverberated from the tranquil town of Chautauqua to the United Nations, which issued a statement expressing U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ horror and stressing that free expression and opinion should not be met with violence.

Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday’s attack, which led an evening news bulletin on Iranian state television.

From the White House, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan described the attack as “reprehensible” and said the Biden administration wished Rushdie a quick recovery.

Rushdie has been a prominent spokesman for free expression and liberal causes, and the literary world recoiled at what Ian McEwan, a novelist and Rushdie’s friend, described as “an assault on freedom of thought and speech.”

“Salman has been an inspirational defender of persecuted writers and journalists across the world,” McEwan said in a statement. “He is a fiery and generous spirit; a man of immense talent and courage and he will not be deterred.”

After the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” often-violent protests erupted across the Muslim world against Rushdie, who was born in India to a Muslim family.

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

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 (89 kilometers) southwest of Buffalo in a rural corner of New York, has served for more than a century as a place for reflection and spiritual guidance. Visitors don’t pass through metal detectors or undergo bag checks. Most people leave the doors to their century-old cottages unlocked at night.

The center is known for its summertime lecture series, where Rushdie has spoken before.

At an evening vigil, a few hundred residents and visitors gathered for prayer, music and a long moment of silence.

“Hate can’t win,” one man shouted.

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