Salman Rushdie: Satanic Verses author 'alive' after being stabbed in neck and airlifted to hospital

·7 min read
Indian-born British writer Rushdie, whose novel the Satanic Verses led to death threats and a fatwa from the Iranian regime, was stabbed by an attacker multiple times while on stage to speak at the Chautauqua Institution near the city of Buffalo in western New York. - Joshua Goodman 
Indian-born British writer Rushdie, whose novel the Satanic Verses led to death threats and a fatwa from the Iranian regime, was stabbed by an attacker multiple times while on stage to speak at the Chautauqua Institution near the city of Buffalo in western New York. - Joshua Goodman

Author Salman Rushdie has been flown by helicopter to hospital after being stabbed in the neck while on stage at an literary event in New York on Friday.

Indian-born British writer Rushdie, whose novel the Satanic Verses led to death threats and a fatwa from the Iranian regime, was stabbed by an attacker multiple times while on stage to speak at the Chautauqua Institution near the city of Buffalo in western New York.

State governor Kathy Hochul told a press conference that a state police officer saved his life and that of the moderator, who she said was also attacked.

She added: "He is alive, he has been airlifted to safety."

An Associated Press reporter witnessed a man storm the stage at the Chautauqua Institution earlier on Friday and begin stabbing Rushdie "10 to 15 times" as he was being introduced.

The assailant was reportedly wearing a black mask, according to eyewitnesses.

Footage from the event shows some audience members immediately rush to the stage to help Rushdie, 75, after he fell to the floor, while others can be heard screaming and shouting "oh my God".

One eyewitness who was in the audience told The New York Post that Rushdie tried to run off the stage, and the two men scuffled before audience members rushed onstage to subdue the attacker.

“As this was happening, several members of the crowd were yelling fearfully and saying ‘he’s stabbing him!'” said the witness.

Another Rita Landman, who was in the audience, told the New York Times that Rushdie had multiple stab wounds, including one to the right side of his neck, and that there was a pool of blood under his body.

She said he appeared to be alive and was not receiving CPR.​ “People were saying, ‘He has a pulse, he has a pulse he has a pulse,’” Ms. Landman said.

Author Salman Rushdie, behind screen left, is tended to after he was attacked during a lecture - Joshua Goodman /AP
Author Salman Rushdie, behind screen left, is tended to after he was attacked during a lecture - Joshua Goodman /AP

A photograph from the scene shows a community safety officer and others with their hands over Rushdie’s chest and holding his legs up in the air.

He was pictured being taken away in a stretcher, with an IV drip in his arm and blood covering his torso, hands and face.

One audience member, a retired nurse who gave her name only as Kathy, told The Telegraph: "You could never ever imagine something like this would happen here. Not in a million years. Everyone was just waiting patiently for Rushdie when we heard this scream and a crash.

"This man was thrusting towards him, like he was punching him, but then we saw the blood. My husband told me to look away. We sat in our seats until the state trooper told us to get out. We were all just so terrified," she added.

New York state police later confirmed he had suffered an apparent stab wound to the neck and had been flown by helicopter to a local hospital.

Rushdie was stretchered into an ambulance before being transported to the local hospital in western New York
Rushdie was stretchered into an ambulance before being transported to the local hospital in western New York
Rushdie being taken away in a helicopter 
Rushdie being taken away in a helicopter

The attacker is said to have been taken in custody. The Telegraph could not immediately confirm a picture shared online of the arrest of the alleged suspect, who appeared late twenties, with closely cut dark hair and beard, wearing a dark jacket and green and grey camouflage T-shirt.

Rushdie was attending the event at the Chautauqua Institution, an event space and residence for artists, for a discussion about the United States as a place of asylum for writers and other artists in exile and how it is a home for freedom of creative expression.

The Chautauqua Institution, about 55 miles southwest of Buffalo in a rural, quiet corner of New York, is known for its summertime lecture series. Rushdie had spoken at the event before.

The author's most well-known book The Satanic Verses, a Booker Prize finalist which was inspired by the life of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad 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. Rushdie was in the UK at the time and lived under police protection for several years.

Iran has also offered over $3 million in reward for anyone who kills him.

Salman Rushdie stabbed on stage in New York
Salman Rushdie stabbed on stage in New York

Rushdie spent nearly a decade in hiding, moving houses repeatedly and being unable to tell his children where he lived.

He only began to emerge from his life on the run in the late 1990s after Iran said it would not support his assassination.

In 1998, during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, his foreign minister Kamal Kharazi told his British counterpart that “Iran will never pursue the fatwa or instruct anyone to carry it out”, a diplomatic way of reversing the death penalty without losing face.

The move led to the resumption of the UK's diplomatic relations with the Islamic regime.

However, in 2005, the current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared to backtrack on that, calling Salman Rushdie "a heretic who deserves to be annihilated".

The spokesperson for Iran's foreign ministry at the time also said that "according to our Islamic values, the fatwa remains valid until such time that it is annulled by the supreme leader".

Demonstrators in Tehran call for the death of Indian-British writer Salman Rushdie after a fatwa was issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989  - Hulton Archive 
Demonstrators in Tehran call for the death of Indian-British writer Salman Rushdie after a fatwa was issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 - Hulton Archive

Now living in New York, Rushdie is an advocate of freedom of speech, notably launching a strong defence of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo after its staff were gunned down by Islamists in Paris in 2015.

The magazine had published drawings of Mohammed that drew furious reactions from Muslims worldwide.

Threats and boycotts continue against literary events that Rushdie attends, and his knighthood in 2007 sparked protests in Iran and Pakistan, where a government minister said the honour justified suicide bombings.

Tehran 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. Rushdie dismissed that threat at the time, saying there was "no evidence" of people being interested in the reward.

Shortly after the attack was reported, messages of concern began streaming in from across the world.

Chuck Schumer, senator for New York and the Senate’s majority leader said: “This attack is shocking and appalling. It is an attack on freedom of speech and thought, which are two bedrock values of our country and of the Chautauqua Institution. I hope Mr. Rushdie quickly and fully recovers and the perpetrator experiences full accountability and justice.”

Nigella Lawson, the British cookery writer and broadcaster and a longstanding friend of the author, said: "Such shocking news of Salman Rushdie having been stabbed. This is horrific. Am distraught. Please, please let him be ok."

Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of the writer’s organisation PEN America, said: "Salman Rushdie has been targeted for his words for decades but has never flinched nor faltered. He has devoted tireless energy to assisting others who are vulnerable and menaced. We hope .. fervently that his essential voice cannot and will not be silenced.”

Stephanie Merrit, the best-selling British author who writes as SJ Parris, said: "God I hope Rushdie's ok. I interviewed him on stage about 20 years ago. The audience had to come in through airport-type security gates. I remember looking out at this big crowd & feeling suddenly scared: it would only take one. How much courage he must have had all this time."