Salman Rushdie is attacked on stage in western New York.

CHAUTAUQUA, NY — Salman Rushdie spent years in hiding after Iran’s leadership called for his death following the publication of his novel “The Satanic Verses.” But in recent years, declaring “Oh, I’ve got to live my life,” he’s rejoined society, appearing regularly in public in New York City with no apparent security.

On Friday morning, any sense that threats to his life were a thing of the past dissipated when an attacker took the stage at the Chautauqua Institution here in western New York, where Mr. Rushdie was scheduled to speak. about the United States as a safe haven for exiled writers. The assailant stabbed Mr. Rushdie, 75, in the abdomen and neck, police and witnesses said, struggling to continue the attack even as multiple people stopped him.

Mr. Rushdie was airlifted to a nearby hospital in Erie, Pa., where he was in surgery for several hours on Friday afternoon. Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, said Friday night that Rushdie was on a ventilator and unable to speak.

“The news is not good,” Wylie said in an email. “Salman will probably lose an eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged.”

Major Eugene J. Staniszewski of the New York State Police identified the suspect in the attack as Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old New Jersey man who was arrested at the scene, but said at a news conference Friday afternoon that there had been no indication yet of a motive.

He said police were working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the local sheriff’s office and that investigators were in the process of obtaining search warrants for a backpack and electronic devices found at the institution.

The attack shocked spectators, who had gathered in the 4,000-seat amphitheater at the Chautauqua Institution, a summer destination for literary and arts programming.

“It took like five men to get him away and he was still stabbing,” said Linda Abrams, who attended the conference in the front row. “I was furious, furious. Like intensely loud and just fast.”

Others described blood running down Rushdie’s cheek and pooling on the ground. A doctor who treated him, Rita Landman, said that Mr. Rushdie appeared to have multiple stab wounds, including one to the right side of his neck, but that people around him said, “he has a pulse, he has a pulse.”

Ralph Henry Reese, 73, who was on stage with Rushdie to moderate the discussion, suffered a facial injury during the attack and was released from the hospital on Friday afternoon, police said.

The brazen attack on Mr. Rushdie shook the literary world. Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, which promotes free speech, said in a statement that “we cannot think of any comparable incident of a public attack on a literary writer on American soil.”

After being released from the hospital, Reese said in a statement that Rushdie was “one of the great authors of our time and one of the great defenders of free speech and creative freedom of expression.”

“We revere him and our primary concern is his life,” Mr. Reese said. “The fact that this attack could occur in the United States is indicative of the threats to writers from many governments and from many individuals and organizations.”

Mr. Rushdie had been effectively living under a death sentence since 1989, some six months after the publication of his novel “The Satanic Verses”, which fictionalized parts of the life of the Prophet Muhammad with depictions that many Muslims found offensive and some considered blasphemous. .

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran after the 1979 Iranian revolution, issued a religious edict known as a fatwa on February 14, 1989, ordering Muslims to kill Mr. Rushdie. A price of several million dollars was put on his head. Rushdie, who was living in London at the time, went into hiding, moving into a fortified safe house under the protection of British police for most of the next 10 years.

On Friday morning around 10:47 a.m., Rushdie had just sat down onstage with the discussion moderator, Mr. Reese, co-founder of a Pittsburgh nonprofit City of Asylum, a program residence for exiled writers, when a man ran onto the stage and attacked Rushdie, police and several witnesses said. The audience members gasped and jumped to their feet.

Mary Newsom, who attended the conference, said some people initially thought it might be a hoax. “Then it became clear that it was clearly not a stunt,” she said.

Several witnesses said the attacker was able to reach Rushdie easily, running onto the stage and approaching him from behind. Chuck Koch, an Ohio attorney who owns a home in Chautauqua, was seated in the second row and ran onto the stage to help subdue the attacker. Mr. Koch said several people worked to separate the assailant from Mr. Rushdie, and were able to do so before a uniformed officer arrived and handcuffed the assailant.

As the attacker was being held down, another attendee, Bruce Johnson, saw a knife fall to the ground, he said.

Chautauqua President Michael Hill said at the news conference Friday afternoon that Mr. Matar had a pass to access the institution’s grounds like any typical customer.

The attack was denounced by literary figures and public officials. Markus Dohle, CEO of Penguin Random House, Rushdie’s publisher, said in a statement: “We are deeply shocked and dismayed to learn of the attack.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Great Britain said in a Twitter post that he was “appalled that Sir Salman Rushdie has been stabbed to death while exercising a right that we must never stop defending.”

Governor Kathy Hochul of New York said on Twitter: “Today’s attack on Salman Rushdie was also an attack on some of our most sacred values: the free expression of thought.”

Even before the fatwa, “The Satanic Verses” was banned in several countries, including Bangladesh, Sudan, Sri Lanka and India, where Rushdie was born. He was banned from the country for more than a decade.

After the fatwa, Iran rejected a lukewarm apology from Rushdie, which he later regretted.

Many were killed in protests against its publication, including 12 people in a Mumbai riot in February 1989 and six more in another Islamabad riot. Books were burned and there were attacks on bookstores. People connected to the book were also targeted.

In July 1991, Hitoshi Igarashi, the novel’s Japanese translator, was stabbed to death and his Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, was seriously injured. In October 1993, William Nygaard, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, was shot three times outside his home in Oslo and seriously injured.

Iran’s government upheld the fatwa after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death for nearly a decade, until 1998, when Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, considered relatively liberal, said Iran no longer supported assassination. But the fatwa is still in effect, reportedly with an attached reward from an Iranian religious foundation of some $3.3 million as of 2012.

In an interview with The Sunday Times in 1995, shortly before Mr. Rushdie’s first scheduled public appearance since the fatwa (a panel in London where he discussed his new novel, “The Moor’s Last Sigh”), the author addressed his return to writing after the conflagration over “The Satanic Verses.”

“Writing this was a very important step for me,” he said in that interview. “I had been talking to politicians for two and a half years, which is not my favorite occupation. Then I realized that it was foolish to let this unpleasant business get in the way of what I love to do most. I wanted to prove to myself that I could absorb what had happened to me and transcend it. And now, at least, I feel like I’ve done it.”

Since then, Rushdie has published eight novels and a 2012 memoir, “Joseph Anton,” about the fatwa. The title comes from the pseudonym he used while in hiding, taken from the given names of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.

In recent years, Mr. Rushdie has enjoyed a more public life in New York City. In 2019, he spoke at a private club in Manhattan to promote his novel, “Quichotte.” Security at the event was relaxed and Mr. Rushdie mingled freely with guests and later dined with club members.

Iran has yet to make an official statement on the attack on the perpetrator.

But government supporters took to social media to hail the Rushdie stabbing as the Ayatollah’s fatwa finally coming to fruition. Some wanted him dead. Some warned that a similar fate awaits other enemies of the Islamic Republic.

A quote from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dating back several years was widely shared, in which he says that the fatwa against Rushdie was “fired like a bullet that will not rest until it hits the target”.

Ayad Akhtar, a writer and president of PEN America, who is a friend of Rushdie and considers “The Satanic Verses” an “essential moment” in modern literary history, said he never saw Rushdie bring any kind of security. , whether in a theater, at a dinner or at a public event. Rushdie seemed perfectly at ease in the world, he said.

jay root reported from Chautauqua, New York, david gelles of Putnam Valley, New York, Elizabeth Harris Y Julia Jacobs from New York City. Additional reports were provided by steven erganger, Farnaz Fassihi, Jonah E. Bromwich Y Edmund Lee.

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