CHAUTAUQUA, NY (AP) — Salman Rushdie, the author whose writing led to death threats from Iran in the 1980s, was attacked and apparently stabbed in the neck Friday by a man who stormed onto the stage as he was about to give a lecture in western New York.
An Associated Press reporter witnessed a man confront Rushdie on the podium of the Chautauqua Institute and beat or stab him 10 to 15 times while being introduced. The 75-year-old author was pushed or fell to the ground and the man was arrested.
According to state police, Rushdie was apparently stabbed in the neck and flown to a hospital. His condition was not immediately known. The event moderator was also attacked and suffered a minor head injury, police said.
Rabbi Charles Savenor was one of about 2,500 people in the audience. Sobbing, the spectators were led out of the outdoor amphitheater.
The attacker ran up the platform’ and began pounding Mr. Rushdie. At first you think, “What’s going on?” And then within seconds it became abundantly clear that he was being beaten,” Savenor said. He said the attack lasted about 20 seconds.
Another onlooker, Kathleen Jones, said the attacker was dressed in black, with a black mask.
“We thought maybe it was a stunt to show that there is still a lot of controversy surrounding this author. But it became clear within seconds that it wasn’t, she said.
A bloodied Rushdie was quickly surrounded by a small group of people who held up his legs, presumably to send more blood to his chest.
Rushdie has been a prominent spokesperson for free speech and liberal causes. He is a former president of PEN America, who said it was “wobbly with shock and horror” at the attack.
“We cannot think of a comparable incident of a public violent attack on a literary writer on American soil,” CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement.
Rushdie “has been the target of his words for decades, but has never been shocked or wavered,” she added.
His 1988 book “The Satanic Verses” was considered blasphemous by many Muslims. Violent protests against Rushdie often erupted around the world, including a riot that left 12 people dead in Mumbai.
The novel was banned in Iran, where the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa or edict in 1989 demanding Rushdie’s death. Khomeini died that same year.
Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has never issued its own fatwa to revoke the edict, although Iran has not targeted the writer in recent years.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday’s attack.
There is also a bounty of more than $3 million on offer for anyone who kills Rushdie.
The death threats and bounties prompted Rushdie to go into hiding under a British government protection program, which included a 24-hour armed guard. Rushdie emerged after nine years of seclusion and cautiously resumed more public appearances, maintaining his outspoken criticism of religious extremism in general.
He has said he is proud of his fight for freedom of expression, saying in a 2012 New York speech that terrorism is truly the art of fear.
“The only way to beat it is to decide not to be afraid,” he said.
The Iranian government has long distanced itself from Khomeini’s decree, but anti-Rushdie sentiment has lingered. The Index on Censorship, an organization that promotes free speech, said money was raised in 2016 to increase the reward for his murder, underlining that the fatwa for his death still applies.
In 2012, Rushdie published a memoir, ‘Joseph Anton’, about the fatwa. The title came from the pseudonym Rushdie had used while in hiding.
Rushdie rose to prominence with his 1981 Booker Prize winning novel ‘Midnight’s Children’, but his name became known around the world after ‘The Satanic Verses’.
About 85 miles southwest of Buffalo in a rural corner of New York, the Chautauqua Institute has served as a place for reflection and spiritual guidance for over a century. Visitors do not go through metal detectors and do not undergo bag checks. Most people leave the doors of their centuries-old cottages unlocked at night.
Police said a state trooper was assigned to Rushdie’s lecture.
The Chautauqua center is known for its summer lecture series, where Rushdie has spoken before. Speakers cover a different topic each week. Rushdie and moderator Henry Reese planned to talk about “the United States as a refuge for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression.”
Associated Press writers Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, New York; Michael Hill in Albany, New York; and Jennifer Peltz in New York City contributed to this report.