The 1988 novel helped propel the British-Indian scribe to superstardom. But the book—which features a character who has a dream that resembles the story of the founding of Islam—spurred a call for his assassination by the supreme leader of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Since then, the 75-year-old author has faced a multi-million-dollar bounty on his head, violent protests against his work, and the 1991 murder of Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of his most controversial novel. He has been forced into hiding, taken on a false identity, and for years was protected by a coterie of British government security and his own private guards.
On Friday, Rushdie was fighting for his life after being stabbed by an unknown attacker just moments after taking the stage at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. The New York State Police said a suspect was in custody after the attack, and that Rushdie had sustained an injury to the neck. Police did not identify a motive for the attack.
Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, told The Daily Beast early Friday afternoon that the author was in surgery but did not “have an update on his condition.”
“We can think of no comparable incident of a public violent attack on a literary writer on American soil,” PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement, adding that Rushdie “has been targeted for his words for decades but has never flinched nor faltered.”
The campaign of threats took off after the writer published his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, in 1988. The book spurred immediate controversy in some parts of the Muslim community, where Rushdie was accused of mocking the prophet. Khomeini issued a fatwa—or edict—calling for Rushdie’s head on Feb. 14, 1989.
Days later, the United Kingdom and Iran broke off diplomatic relations. For the following 12 years, Rushdie lived under the constant protection of British security and secret service agents.
The translator, Igarashi, was stabbed repeatedly in the face and arms in July 1991 in the wake of the fatwa—which also called for the death of anyone involved in the novel’s publication. In 1991, Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was also attacked for his work on the book but survived with severe injuries. Two years later, Norwegian publisher William Nygard was shot three times, but survived.
Rushdie moved to New York City in 2002—a choice that meant leaving behind his British security entourage. Even as the author found himself in the crosshairs of Al Qaeda, as well, he continued to appear at public events, albeit typically with a security detail.
Though a reformist Iranian president suggested Iran no longer sought Rushdie’s death in the late 1990s, Khomeini’s successor stressed the fatwa was still valid in 2005, noting that in Iran the ayatollah is the supreme leader and their edicts must be followed without fail. State-run media outlets in 2016 added an additional $600,000 to the bounty for Rushdie, bringing it to over $3 million.
Despite the calls for his head, Rushdie has continued to thrive as a literary giant, and even one who appears in public. Knighted for his work in 2007, he was named the Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University, taught at Emory, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2012, Rushdie also wrote a memoir, Joseph Anton, detailing the alias he used while living underground.
“We must defend our valuable and hard-won freedom,” he said in a 2015 interview with Deutsche Welle. “We have to fight for it, if need be.”
That fight for freedom included taking part in a summer lecture series at the Chautauqua Institution. The conversation was set to focus on the importance of providing writers with places for asylum.
But just moments after sitting down, witnesses told The Daily Beast, a man rushed the short stage and began to punch and stab the author. Several witnesses told The Daily Beast that they did not notice much security before the event, but did see several people rush from behind the stage after Rushdie was attacked.
“Everyone was shocked,” Marion Baumgarten, who was at the event with her husband, told The Daily Beast. “Many people in the audience were crying.”