Noted author Salman Rushdie was airlifted to a hospital after he was attacked before an appearance Friday at Chautauqua Institution.
According to witness reports, Rushdie was attacked on stage by Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, NJ Among those witnessing the incident was an Associated Press reporter who witnessed a man storm the stage at the Chautauqua Institution and began punching or stabbing Rushdie as he was being introduced. The 75-year-old author was pushed or fell to the floor, and Matar was restrained.
The New York State Police said Rushdie suffered an apparent stab wound to the neck. Rushdie was quickly surrounded by a small group of people who held up his legs, presumably to send more blood to his chest.
Witnesses report Rushdie’s attacker was arrested by a New York State Police trooper who was assigned to the event. Chautauqua County Sheriff’s deputies assisted at the scene.
At a press conference Friday afternoon at the State Police Barracks in Jamestown, troopers said Rushdie was taken to UPMC Hamot in Erie, Pa, but was unable to give an update on his condition.
Ralph Henry Reese, who was the interviewer on stage, was also injured in the attack. The 73 year old suffered a minor head injury and was also taken to UPMC Hamot.
Troopers said they are working with the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the county Sheriff’s Office, and District Attorney Jason Schmidt.
Matar is currently in custody and troopers said they do not expect him to be released due to the nature of the crime.
A backpack was recovered from the scene that was believed to be Matar’s. It was cleared by the Sheriff’s Office’s K-9 and bomb squad units. It was being held for investigation pending a warrant.
Rabbi Charles Savenor was among the hundreds of people in the audience. Amid gasps, spectators were ushered out of the outdoor amphitheater.
“This guy ran on to 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 eyewitness posted on Facebook that Rushdie had been attacked, saying “Please hold Mr. Rushdie and all of the institution in prayer. We are all incredibly traumatized.”
The 145 people watching the discussion on CHQ Assembly, the institution’s online home for the morning lecture series and other Chautauqua Institution events, saw the video feed quickly cut off while a moderator said in the chat that the amphitheater was being evacuated as viewers asked what was happening.
Rushdie was speaking at a special Chautauqua Lecture Series event exploring the Week Seven theme of “More than Shelter,” joined by Reese, co-founder of the Pittsburgh nonprofit City of Asylum. The pair were to discuss the United States as a place of asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression. Reese suffered a minor head injury, according to the State Police.
The author is no stranger to Chautauqua Institution. Rushdie’s book “The Enchantress of Florence” was a Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection in 2010 and the institution noted his visit Friday was a return appearance.
Rushdie is the author of 14 novels, four works of nonfiction and a collection of short stories, in addition to serving as co-editor of two anthologies. The winner of many of the world’s top literary prizes, he served as founding president in 1994 of the International Parliament of Writers (now the International Network of Cities of Asylum) — an organization formed to create structures capable of aiding and supporting persecuted writers, and what eventually became known as the Cities of Asylum Network.
Rushdie has been a prominent spokesperson for free expression and liberal causes. He is a former president of PEN America, which he said it was “reeling from shock and horror” at the attack.
“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, according to the Associated Press.
“Salman Rushdie has been targeted for his words for decades but has never flinched nor faltered,” she added.
Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses” has been banned in Iran since 1988, as many Muslims consider it to be blasphemous. A year later, Iran’s late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death.
A bounty of over $3 million has also been offered for anyone who kills Rushdie.
Iran’s government has long since distanced itself from Khomeini’s decree, but anti-Rushdie sentiment has lingered. In 2012, a semi-official Iranian religious foundation raised the bounty for Rushdie from $2.8 million to $3.3 million.
Rushdie dismissed that threat at the time, saying there was “no evidence” of people being interested in the reward.
That year, 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 Associated Press, John Whittaker, John D’Agostino and OBSERVER/Post-Journal Staff Reporter Gregory Bacon contributed to this report.