Famed author Salman Rushdie, who has endured death threats from extremists for decades, was stabbed Friday before a scheduled lecture in western New York, authorities said.
A man stormed the stage at the Chautauqua Institution, about 70 miles south of Buffalo, at about 11 am and attacked the 75-year-old Rushdie and interviewer Henry Reese, New York State Police Maj. Eugene J. Staniszewski said.
Rushdie is best known for “The Satanic Verses,” which has been banned in Iran and is considered by some Muslims to be blasphemous.
The author was stabbed at least once in his neck and abdomen, Staniszewski said at a news conference. He was “still undergoing surgery” in Erie, Pennsylvania, as the major spoke.
State police were working with counterparts in nearby Pennsylvania to determine Rushdie’s condition. A spokesperson for UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Erie, said by email, “We have no information at this time” and referred inquiries to New York State Police.
Reese, co-founder of a Pittsburgh nonprofit that hosts a residency program for writers living in exile, was treated for injuries to his face and released, the major said.
During the attack, people rushed the stage and quickly neutralized the man, who was taken into custody by a state trooper and a Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office deputy, Staniszewski said.
Video of the attack has already been reviewed by investigators, he said.
The venue had beefed up its law enforcement presence for high profile events, the major said, explaining why a trooper and a deputy were onstage immediately.
“They requested a law enforcement presence be there,” Staniszewski said. “And thankfully we were.”
A doctor who had been in the hearing rapidly rendered aid until emergency medical services workers could take over moments later, the major said.
Three law enforcement sources briefed on the investigation identified the attacker as 24-year-old Hadi Matar, with a last listed address in New Jersey. Staniszewski later confirmed that identity at the news conference.
Authorities did not know the man’s nationality and they were unsure if he had a criminal record, the major said. The motive for the attack was still under investigation.
“We will work with the FBI, the sheriffs office, and we will determine what the cause of this attack was, what the motive was,” Staniszewski said.
A backpack believed to have been left behind by the suspect was rendered safe by sheriff’s bomb squad members, and state troopers have requested a search warrant to look inside, Staniszewski said.
They’ve also asked a judge to allow them to search electronic devices associated with the suspect, he said.
Possible charges for the suspect would have to wait for word of the author’s condition, the major said.
Representatives for Rushdie did not immediately return an NBC News request for comment.
“The first stab was right into the artery”
Rushdie was seated on stage being introduced when a young man in all black approached him, took out a knife and stabbed him directly in the neck, said witness Julia Mineeva-Braun, who was seated in the fifth row.
Mineeva-Braun, who teaches Russian at State University of New York at Fredonia, said she originally thought the attacker was a stage hand helping Rushdie with sound.
“From the (audience’s) left there’s a guy running, dressed up in black, and he came and I was thinking he was fixing Mr. Rushdie’s microphone because he was getting to his neck,” Mineeva-Braun, 47, told NBC News.
“Then and all of a sudden we see the knife and the first stab was right into the artery, into his neck, and then several stabs a little bit lower into the shoulder blade.”
The stabbing unfolded and ended in seconds, as Rushdie tried to flee his attacker and they both fell just feet behind the chairs as audience members flooded the stage to help the writer and pin the assailant, Mineeva-Braun said.
“He didn’t say a word, he didn’t say anything,” Mineeva-Braun said of the attacker, who appeared to be a young man in his 20s.
Rushdie appeared to be conscious and speaking to first responders, according to the witness.
“The Satanic Verses” and the fatwa against Rushdie
Rushdie is one of the most acclaimed novelists in contemporary literature, celebrated for his provocative mix of magical realism and historical allegory.
In books such as “Midnight’s Children” and the infamous “The Satanic Verses,” Rushdie dazzled readers with his energetic prose style and impressed critics with his thematic ambition.
“Midnight’s Children,” published in 1981, earned him the prestigious Booker Prize.
“The Satanic Verses,” featuring a character based on the Islamic prophet Muhammad, outraged much of the Muslim world when it was published in the late 1980s, inspiring protests and leading Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa, or edict, calling for his death.
The firestorm forced Rushdie to go into hiding for many years.
Friday’s attack happened at about 8 pm local time in Tehran and it was widely reported on Iranian state media.
In those reports, Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” and that the fatwa had been ordered were prominently mentioned.
But there was no immediate, official statement from Tehran, regarding the attack.
State Sen. George Borrello, who represents the region where Friday’s attack happened, recalled purchasing “The Satanic Verses” when it was originally published as a “show of support for Mr. Rushdie and for the basic human right of free speech.”
“This shocking attack on a celebrated and noted author, apparently prompted by fundamentalist extremism, has no place in America,” Borrello said in a statement. “There is no room, in a free society, for beliefs that demand you kill someone who disagrees with you.”
Reactions from the political and literary communities
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., said the “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,” he said in a statement. “I hope Mr. Rushdie quickly and fully recovers and the perpetrator experiences full accountability and justice.”
In a statement, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said: “He is an individual who has spent decades speaking truth to power … we condemn what happened, we condemn all violence, and we want people to feel that freedom to speak and to write truth.”
Nadine Dorries, the United Kingdom’s culture secretaryalso condemned the attack on the Indian-born British author, calling it, “Horrifying.”
“An awful attack on a literary giant and one of the great defenders of freedom of expression,” Dorries said.
Rushdie was scheduled to appear on Friday alongside Reese, who helped create an organization dedicated protecting exiled writers and free speech called City of Asylum.
The Chautauqua Institution canceled its programs for the rest of Friday following the attack. Its president, Michael E. Hill, said the remainder of its Chautauqua Lecture Series, scheduled through the end of the month, would go on as planned.
“This has never happened in our entire history,” he said during the news conference. “Chautauqua has always been an extremely safe place.”
Rushdie in 2012 published “Joseph Anton: A Memoir,” recounting his years since the fatwa was issued.
Though it wasn’t immediately clear what the attacker’s motive was, New York-based Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad called the stabbing “barbaric.”
“You can kill us but you cannot kill the idea of writing & fighting for our dignity,” she said in a statement. “I condemn the barbaric attack on Salman Rushdie. After surviving a kidnapping and an assassination plot in New York, I won’t feel safe on US soil until the US take strong action against terror.”
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.