(CNN) –– Salman Rushdie, a celebrated writer and winner of the world’s top literary prizes whose writing has drawn death threats, was attacked and stabbed at least twice on stage Friday before giving a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York, state police said.
The suspect was identified as Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, New Jersey, according to information shared by authorities at a news conference.
The suspect jumped onto the stage and stabbed Rushdie at least once in the neck and at least once in the abdomen, state police said. Staff and audience members lunged at the suspect and pinned him to the ground before a state trooper took the attacker into custody, police said.
Rushdie was airlifted from a field adjacent to the venue, in a rural lakeside resort about 70 miles (112 kilometers) south of Buffalo, to a hospital. An interviewer also suffered a minor head injury, police said.
Rushdie is undergoing surgery, state police said Friday night.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul told reporters Friday that Rushdie is “alive” and “getting the care he needs.” She also noted that a state trooper “intervened and saved his life, and protected him and the moderator who was also attacked.”
“Here is an individual who has spent decades speaking truth to power,” Hochul said of Rushdie. “Someone who has been out there without fear, despite the threats that have haunted him his entire adult life, it seems.”
Rushdie was being introduced around 10:45 am when the attack occurred, according to a witness, who said he heard screams from the audience. He said that a man in a black shirt appeared to be “punching” the author. The witness, who was about 20 meters from the stage, did not hear the attacker say anything or see a weapon.
Some people in the audience ran to help while others chased after the attacker, the witness said.
A witness to the attack, who has lived in Chautauqua for many years, told CNN that she saw Rushdie half-erect as a man made stabbing gestures at him. She counted approximately 7 to 10 stabbing movements, before fleeing out of fear for her own safety: “I was shaking like a leaf,” she said. The witness, who asked not to be identified, also pointed out that there was no security control for those attending the event.
Along the same lines, another witness who attended the Rushdie event told CNN that there were no security checks or metal detectors before the conference. The only way the Chautauqua Institution controlled who attended was if people had a pass to the event and venue. CNN is not identifying the witness at this time because he expressed concern for his personal safety after the attack.
The witness indicated that shortly after the presentation of the event began, he saw a man walking quickly down the left aisle of the venue. That man, he said, then jumped onto the stage and approached Rushdie, and began “doing a stabbing hand motion repeatedly.” People began screaming, the witness said, and soon after security and other attendees came onstage to separate the man from Rushdie.
The witness provided CNN with video of the scene after the attack, and in the footage several people can be seen on the scene as well as what appears to be a security officer with a dog.
Afterwards, attendees were instructed to quietly and calmly evacuate the venue, taking everything they brought with them. The witness recalled being told that anything left would be confiscated. The person did recall noticing increased private security at the site during the last 24 hours before Friday’s event.
Witness describes attack on Salman Rushdie
A witness in the audience told CNN that he saw Rushdie being attacked on stage at the Chautauqua Institution. However, he detailed that he did not see a weapon.
The witness was checking his phone and heard some people in the audience screaming. When he looked up, the witness recounted that he saw a man wearing what he believes was a black shirt on stage “punching” him, referring to Rushdie. The person said that he did not hear the man say anything during the attack and that he did not see a weapon.
“He was attacked, he was attacking him, undoubtedly,” the witness said.
He added that some people in the audience ran up on stage to stop the attacker, while others ran to Salman Rushdie’s aid. He also stated that there seemed to be liquid near Rushdie, but that he couldn’t say what exactly it was. He mentioned that it could have been coffee, or water, or blood. The witness explained that it was difficult to determine Rushdie’s condition from where he was sitting in the audience, about 20 meters from the stage. He also noted that some retired medical professionals have offered to provide immediate help on stage.
“It was a real shock,” said the witness. “This is a peaceful community and it’s quite shocking that this has happened in a place like this.”
Salman Rushdie, a longtime author, became known worldwide in the 1980s after his novel “The Satanic Verses” sparked protests across the Muslim world. In 1989, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran called Rushdie blasphemous and said the play was an insult to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. He also issued a fatwa (religious edict) against the author, calling for his death.
As a result, the writer spent a decade under British protection, before the Iranian government announced that it would no longer seek to enforce the edict in 1998.
Writers react to the attack
Several writers reacted on their social networks to the attack on Rushdie.
Stephen King briefly tweeted: “Hope Salman Rushie is okay.”
I hope Salman Rushdie is okay.
— Stephen King (@StephenKing) August 12, 2022
For his part, David Simon wrote: “And now Rushdie. It is becoming evident that this new century offers a new Dark Age, a late opportunity for the social and political evolution of the human race. We have advanced in fits, starts and occasional leaps But greed, fear and superstition will go away.”
And Rushdie now.
It’s becoming apparent this fresh new century is offering up a new Dark Age, a late chance for the social and political de-evolution of the human race. We’ve edged forward in fits, starts, and the occasional leap. But greed, fear and superstition will out.
— David Simon (@AoDespair) August 12, 2022
JK Rowling shared a report of the attack with the words: “Horrible news.”
Horrifying news. https://t.co/i5poClOImW
— JK Rowling (@jk_rowling) August 12, 2022
And Wajahat Ali recounted that he was in that same place “2 weeks ago giving a talk. It is a lovely place with a fantastic, curious and welcoming community. This is shocking. I hope that Salman Rushdie is not injured and can recover and heal quickly. What disgusting”.
Salman Rushdie’s life
Rushdie was born in India in 1947, of British and American nationality. He is the son of a successful Muslim businessman in India. He received his education from him in England, first at Rugby School and then at Cambridge University. There he completed a master’s degree in history.
After college, he started working as a copywriter in London. In 1975 he published his first novel, “Grimus”.
Rushdie’s approach to sensitive political and religious issues made him a controversial figure. But it was the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” his fourth novel, that haunted him for more than three decades.
The writer, who has long been an advocate for racial justice and free speech, told CNN in April that social unrest in the United States following the death of George Floyd was inevitable.
“I’m a huge supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement,” he noted. “The trigger was the murder of George Floyd. But, the roots are in much older grievances. And frankly, it’s about time people paid attention,” he said at the time.
He also stressed that the key issue is how minorities are sometimes treated in the United States. “The problem is how the state routinely treats Black people and how endangered Black lives continue to be,” she said.
With information from Matt Carey, Mallika Kallinga, Matt Morales and Lauren Said-Moorhouse.