CNN

Authorities identify suspect who attacked author Salman Rushdie at western New York event

Aug 12, 2022, 9:30 PM
Salman Rushdie...
Salman Rushdie, an author and winner of the world's top literary prizes was attacked and apparently stabbed in the neck on stage before giving a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York, State Police said. Photo credit: The Associated Press.

 (CNN) — Salman Rushdie — a celebrated author and winner of the world’s top literary prizes whose writings generated death threats — was attacked and stabbed at least twice on stage Friday before a lecture he was scheduled to give at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York, State Police said.

Rushdie was on a ventilator Friday evening and could not speak, his agent, Andrew Wylie, told the New York Times.

“Salman will likely lose one eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged,” Wylie told the Times. “The news is not good.”

The suspect was identified as Hadi Matar, 24, from Fairview, New Jersey, State Police Troop Commander Major Eugene J. Staniszewski said in a Friday evening news conference. Police are working with the FBI and local authorities to determine the motive.

Authorities are also working to obtain search warrants for several items found at the scene, including a backpack and electronic devices, Staniszewski said. Authorities believe the suspect was alone but are investigating “to make sure that was the case,” Staniszewski added.

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 rushed the suspect and put him on 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 lake resort about 70 miles south of Buffalo — to a hospital. Rushdie was undergoing surgery at a hospital in northwestern Pennsylvania, Erie Police Department Deputy Chief William Marucci told CNN Friday evening.

Henry Reese, co-founder of the Pittsburgh nonprofit City of Asylum, who was scheduled to join Rushdie in discussion, was taken to a hospital and treated for a facial injury and released, state police said. The organization was founded to “provide sanctuary in Pittsburgh to writers exiled under threat of persecution,” according to the Chautauqua Institution’s website.

Authorities are working with the district attorney’s office to determine what the charges for the suspect will be “once we get a little further in the investigation and determine the condition of Mr. Rushdie,” Staniszewski said.

Meanwhile, police in Fairview blocked off the street of a home believed to be connected to the suspect and were not allowing anyone, including residents of the street, in or out of the area. Residents were later allowed to enter and exit, but local police remained stationed outside the home.

At least two plainclothes law enforcement officers and two Fairview officers were seen leaving the driveway of the home.

Institution rejected past security recommendations, sources say

The leadership at the Chautauqua Institution, the venue hosting the event, rejected past recommendations to increase security at events, two sources told CNN.

The sources — both with direct knowledge of the security situation at Chautauqua and past recommendations — spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The recommendations for basic security measures, such as bag checks and metal detectors, were rejected because the leadership feared it would create a divide between speakers and the audience, and would change the culture at Chautauqua. It’s unclear whether those security measures would have prevented the attack on Rushdie based on what is currently known about the incident, including the weapon used.

One witness of the attack told CNN there were no security searches or metal detectors at the event. The witness is not being identified because they expressed concerns for their personal safety.

CNN reached out to the Chautauqua Institution and its leadership for comment but did not receive a response.

On its website, Chautauqua says their security protocols may tighten “depending on artist and speaker requirements.” They instruct guests to carry only small bags or clear plastic bags.

“While these restrictions may not be enforced at all events, we do anticipate they may be required in some circumstances this year and, in the future, they may be standard protocol for all events,” the Institution says.

The suspect in Friday’s attack had a “pass to access the grounds,” Dr. Michael E. Hill, president of the Chautauqua Institution, said in the news conference. Guests can purchase passes to attend programs, Hill added.

Hill defended the institution’s measures, saying, “We assess for every event what we think the appropriate security level is, and this one was certainly one that we thought was important which is why we had a State Trooper and Sheriff presence there,” he said.

Staniszewski said there was no indication of any threat to the event and the state trooper was there because the event was a mass gathering and because of a request by the institution.

What witnesses say happened

Rushdie was being introduced at about 10:45 a.m. when the assault happened, according to a witness, who said he heard shouting from the audience. He said a man in a black shirt appeared to be “punching” the author. The witness, who was 75 feet from the stage, did not hear the attacker say anything or see a weapon.

Some people in the audience ran to render aid while others went after the attacker, the witness said. State police said a doctor who was in the audience during the event rendered aid to Rushdie until emergency responders arrived.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul told reporters Friday a state trooper “stood up and saved (Rushdie’s) life and protected him as well as the moderator who was attacked as well.

“Here is an individual who has spent decades speaking truth to power,” the governor said of Rushdie. “Someone who has been out there unafraid, despite the threats that have followed him his entire adult life it seems.”

Joyce Lussier, 83, who was in the second row of the amphitheater during the attack, said Rushdie and Reese had taken a seat on the right-hand side of the stage when suddenly, a man who appeared to be in all black “lurched across the stage and got right to Mr. Rushdie.”

“He came in the left side and leapt across the stage and just lunged at him. In, I don’t know, two seconds he was across that stage,” Lussier said. She added she could hear people screaming and crying and saw people from the audience rushing up to the stage.

“They caught him right away, he did not get off the stage at all,” Lussier said of the suspect. Shortly after, the crowd was asked to evacuate, she added.

Another witness, a longtime Chautauqua resident who asked not to be identified, recalled a commotion on stage and a man making about seven to 10 stabbing motions in the direction of the author, who was in a half-standing position. She said she fled the open-air amphitheater “shaking like a leaf” in fear.

‘His essential voice cannot and will not be silenced’

On its website, the Chautauqua Institution described Friday’s event as “a discussion of the United States as asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression.”

Writers such as Stephen King and J.K. Rowling expressed well-wishes for Rushdie via Twitter.

Rushdie is a former president of PEN America, a prominent US free speech group for authors, which said it is “reeling from shock and horror at word of a brutal, premeditated attack.”

“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.

“We hope and believe fervently that his essential voice cannot and will not be silenced.”

Penguin Random House, Rushdie’s publisher, tweeted a statement from CEO Markus Dohle: “We are deeply shocked and appalled to hear of the attack on Salman Rushdie while he was speaking at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. We condemn this violent public assault, and our thoughts are with Salman and his family at this distressing time.”

Furor over ‘The Satanic Verses’ hounded Rushdie

The 75-year-old novelist — the son of a successful Muslim businessman in India — was educated in England, first at Rugby School and later at the University of Cambridge where he received an MA degree in history.

After college, he began working as an advertising copywriter in London, before publishing his first novel, “Grimus” in 1975.

Rushdie’s treatment of delicate political and religious subjects turned him into a controversial figure. But it was the publication of his fourth novel “The Satanic Verses” in 1988 which has hounded him for more than three decades.

Some Muslims found the book to be sacrilegious and it sparked public demonstrations. In 1989, the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called Rushdie a blasphemer and said “The Satanic Verses” was an insult to Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, and issued a religious decree, or fatwa, calling for his death.

As a result, the Mumbai-born writer spent a decade under British protection.

In 1999, Rushdie told CNN the experience taught him “to value even more … intensely the things that I valued before, such as the art of literature and the freedom of expression and the right to say things that other people don’t like.

“It may have been an unpleasant decade, but it was the right fight, you know. It was fighting for the things that I most believe in against things I most dislike, which are bigotry and fanaticism and censorship.”

The bounty against Rushdie has never been lifted, though in 1998 the Iranian government sought to distance itself from the fatwa by pledging not to seek to carry it out.

But despite what appeared to be a softening of the fatwa, more recently, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reaffirmed the religious edict.

In February 2017, on Khamenei’s official website, the supreme leader was asked if the “fatwa against Rushdie was still in effect,” to which Khamenei confirmed it was, saying, “The decree is as Imam Khomeini issued.”

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Authorities identify suspect who attacked author Salman Rushdie at western New York event