CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. – Salman Rushdie, the USA TODAY bestselling author whose writing led to death threats, was attacked Friday as he was about to give a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York, suffering stab wounds to the neck and abdomen.
Rushdie's agent, Andrew Wylie of The Wylie Agency, said the writer was on a ventilator Friday evening, with a damaged liver, severed nerves in an arm and an eye he was likely to lose.
New York police said a state trooper assigned to the event took a suspect into custody after the attack. In a Friday afternoon press conference, the suspect was identified as Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old from Fairview, New Jersey, according to New York State Police Major Eugene Staniszewsk. Officials did not "have any indication of a motivation at this time," said Staniszewsk, adding charges against Matar have not been filed yet as officials work with the District Attorney office to review evidence and monitor Rushdie's condition.
Earlier Friday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a statement that Rushdie "is an individual who has spent decades speaking truth to power. Someone who's been out there unafraid despite the threats that have followed him his entire adult life, it seems."
Travis Seward, general manager for 10Best at USA TODAY, was at the event. He witnessed a man "bound" toward the stage from the audience with his "arms out swinging." Seward said that he did not hear the man shout anything and that Rushdie tried to get away from the attacker and fell.
"It's really unsettling to everybody here," Seward said. "It’s a peaceful place and it was unexpected."
Rushdie was taken to a hospital by helicopter, police said, and the "interviewer suffered a minor head injury." Staniszewsk said the interviewer had been treated and released from the hospital.
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The Chautauqua Institution "is currently coordinating with law enforcement and emergency officials on a public response," according to a statement emailed to USA TODAY.
Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, a nonprofit organization that works to defend free expression through the advancement of literature and human rights, said in an emailed statement Friday that Rushdie had been "targeted for his words."
"PEN America is reeling from shock and horror at word of a brutal, premeditated attack on our former President and stalwart ally, Salman Rushdie," Nossel said. "We can think of no comparable incident of a public violent attack on a literary writer on American soil. … We hope and believe fervently that his essential voice cannot and will not be silenced."
Rushdie is an Indian-born British-American novelist. He has authored more than a dozen books, and six of his novels are USA TODAY bestsellers. His book "The Satanic Verses" has been banned in Iran since the late 1980s, and many Muslims consider it blasphemous. History.com says, "The book mocked or at least contained mocking references to the Prophet Muhammad and other aspects of Islam, in addition to and a character clearly based on the Supreme Leader of Iran."
After the book was published, Iran's leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie's death.
Iran’s government has long since distanced itself from Khomeini’s decree, but anti-Rushdie sentiment lingered. In 2012, a semi-official Iranian religious foundation raised the bounty for Rushdie from $2.8 million to $3.3 million.
It is not clear whether Friday's attack had any connection to the edict.
Rushdie dismissed that threat at the time. That year, Rushdie published a memoir, "Joseph Anton," about the fatwa.
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Colleen Lough, 65, of Grosse Ile, Michigan, visited Chautauqua for the first time this week and was seated about 20 rows from the stage where Rushdie was attacked. She said the assailant was dressed in black and had "a black stocking or something like that" covering his face.
“It was it was just such a shock that this was happening in front of us and people just started screaming, ‘No! no!’ ” she said.
Lough is an Episcopal chaplain and has volunteered at the nearby Hurlbut Church, ministering to anyone who needs help coping with what they witnessed.
“No one should ever have to fear danger or violence for saying what they think," she said. "Even in these political times, when many of us are not agreeing, everyone should be able to say what they think and have a discussion about it without fearing violence.”
Dr. Michael E. Hill, President of Chautauqua Institution, said at the Friday press conference that the attack would not impact who the institute chooses as its speakers.
"This has been part of his whole life, to bring out ideas. He’s known as one of one of the most significant champions of freedom of speech. And I think the worst thing Chautauqua could do is to back away from its mission in light of this tragedy, and I don’t think Mr. Rushdie would want that either," Hill said.
Rushdie's most recent novel, "Quichotte," was published in 2019. In it, Rushdie puts his spin on the Miguel de Cervantes classic with a modern-day Don Quixote satirizing former President Donald Trump’s America. The book was long-listed for the Booker Prize.
In 2023, the author is expected to publish "Victory City: A Novel," following a woman who "breathes a fantastical empire into existence, only to be consumed by it over the centuries," according to the book description.
Contributing: Kristen Shamus, The Detroit Free Press, USA TODAY Network; Joshua Goodman, The Associated Press
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