Salman Rushdie believed his life was “back to normal” and that fear of an attack was a thing of the past, he had told an interviewer just two weeks before he was stabbed on stage in New York on Friday.
The novelist, who was in hospital on Saturday, was stabbed several times, including in the neck and abdomen. His agent, Andrew Wylie, said his liver was damaged and he was likely to lose an eye.
His alleged attacker, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, was charged with attempted murder and assault.
Rushdie, 75, had spoken at a literary festival at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York state about America’s importance in granting asylum to exiled writers when he was attacked.
Matar, who had bought a ticket, reportedly rushed onto the stage and stabbed Rushdie before being tackled by onlookers, institution personnel and two local law enforcement officers providing security.
Rushdie was under a fatwa in which he called for his death since 1989, when the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini published it in response to the Indian-born author’s controversial novel The Devil’s Verses. The Iranian regime has since tried to move away from the fatwa, but the price on Rushdie’s head has increased to more than $3 million in recent years.
Many Muslims considered Rushdie’s book blasphemous because it included a character they interpreted as an insult to the prophet Muhammad, the founder of their faith.
The Devil’s Verses was published a decade before Matar was born to parents who immigrated from Lebanon. But according to reports, his social media activity suggests an admiration for Iran and an attraction to Shia extremism.
Just two weeks ago, Rushdie had spoken to the German news magazine strict about his safety. The author said his life would have been in much more danger if there had been social media at the time he wrote The Devil’s Verses: “More dangerous, infinitely more dangerous”.
“A fatwa is a serious matter. Luckily we didn’t have internet then. The Iranians had faxed the fatwa to the mosques. That was all a long time ago. Now my life is back to normal.” When asked what scared him now, Rushdie said: “I would have said religious fanaticism in the past. I don’t say that anymore. The greatest danger we face right now is that we will lose our democracy. Ever since the Supreme Court’s abortion decision, I’ve been deeply concerned that the US isn’t going to make it. That the problems are irreparable and the country will fall apart. The greatest danger we face today is this kind of crypto-fascism that we see in America and elsewhere.
“Oh, we live in scary times. That’s true even though I always tell people: don’t be afraid. But the bad thing is that death threats have become more common. Not only politicians get them, even American teachers who take certain books off the syllabus.
“Look how many guns there are in America. The existence of all these weapons is scary in itself. I think many people today live with similar threats to the ones I had then. And the fax machines they used against me are more like a bicycle than a Ferrari compared to the internet.”
He said he was glad his books were judged on the art pages rather than the political sections of the newspapers.
strict asked him what his advice was for people who fear where the world is going: “I believe there is something very good going on with the young generation: they are much more inclined to activism. We see a generation aging that we urgently need now, a combative one. We need people who can organize and people who are willing to fight. fighters. For a society worth living in. Instead of hoping it will be okay. As an author, I also notice that young authors are becoming role models again – instead of the way it used to be, namely only the dead.”
Yesterday, questions were raised about how Matar gained access to the event. Paul Susko, an attorney from Erie — the Pennsylvania town where Rushdie is now on a ventilator at UPMC Hamot Hospital — said participants weren’t allowed to bring food and drink into the lobby, but that was all.
“There was a screening to prevent attendees from bringing in a cup of coffee,” Susko said. He added that “perhaps screening for weapons” with wand or walk-through metal detectors “would have been more helpful”.
Susko, who came to the event with his son, sat in the front row on the side of the stage where Matar rushed toward the author. “There was no security to stop us from going on stage,” said Susko. “At the time of the attack, no security was visible around the stage.”
Several in the audience said Matar was dressed in black and wearing a mask. “We thought maybe it was a stunt to show that there is still a lot of controversy surrounding this author,” said witness Kathleen Jones. “But it became clear within seconds that that was not the case.”
Chautauqua Institution began as a summer camp for Sunday School teachers and grew into an important hub of cultural exchange and dialogue. Hours after the attack, the institution’s president, Michael Hill, said the site had never seen anything like it in nearly 150 years of its existence.
He said: “We were founded to bring people together in the community, to learn to create solutions, to develop empathy and to tackle persistent problems. Today we are called to address fear and the worst of all human traits: hatred.”
Hill confirmed that Matar had a ticket to the event “the same way as any other customer”. He stressed that the institution is open to all, as part of its mission of inclusiveness.
When asked if there should have been enhanced security with metal detectors in place, given the sensitivities around Rushdie, he said: “We are proud of the security we have.”
Prior to Friday’s talk, there were talks between state and local police and the institution, and two police officers – a state trooper and a local deputy – were appointed. Eugene Staniszewski of the New York State Police told a news conference that the police were in talks with the institution at the beginning of the season.
“There were a number of high-profile events for which they had requested law enforcement presence, and luckily they were,” he said. New York State Governor Kathy Hochul praised the trooper for his actions. “It was a state police officer who stood up and saved his life, protected him and also the moderator who was attacked,” she said.
Rushdie had no security of his own. When asked whether the organizers should have made an effort to filter the attendees entering the site, Hill strongly disagreed.
“Our mission is to build bridges across differences,” he said. “Mr Rushdie is known as one of the foremost champions of free speech. One of the worst things Chautauqua could do is withdraw from his mission.”