MAYVILLE, NY (AP) — Salman Rushdie remained hospitalized Saturday after being seriously injured in a knife attack as praise poured in from the West, but he was maligned in Iran.
Rushdie, 75, suffered liver damage, severed nerves in an arm and eye and was on a ventilator, his agent Andrew Wylie said on Friday evening. Rushdie was in danger of losing the injured eye.
Police identified the suspect as 24-year-old Hadi Matar. He was arrested after the attack on the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit education and retreat center where Rushdie was to speak.
Matar, of Fairview, New Jersey, was born in the United States to Lebanese parents who emigrated from Yaroun, a border village in southern Lebanon, Mayor Ali Tehfe told The Associated Press.
Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” drew death threats after its publication in 1988. It was considered blasphemous by many Muslims who viewed a character as an insult to the Prophet Muhammad, among other objections. The book was banned in Iran where the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, in 1989 calling for Rushdie’s death.
Police said the motive for Friday’s attack was unclear. Matar was born a decade after “The Satanic Verses” was first published. Investigators were trying to determine if the assailant acted alone.
Iran’s theocratic government and its state media gave no justification for the aggression. In Tehran, some Iranians interviewed by the AP welcomed the attack on a perpetrator who they said tarnished the Islamic faith, while others feared it could further isolate their country.
An AP reporter saw the attacker confront Rushdie on stage and stab or punch him 10 to 15 times as the perpetrator was introduced. Dr Martin Haskell, a doctor who was among those rushing to help, described Rushdie’s injuries as “serious but recoverable”.
READ MORE: Author Salman Rushdie attacked while giving talk in New York
Event moderator Henry Reese, 73, co-founder of an organization that provides residencies for writers facing persecution, was also attacked. Reese suffered a facial injury and was treated and discharged from a hospital, police said. He and Rushdie had planned to discuss the United States as a haven for exiled writers and other artists.
A state trooper and a county sheriff’s deputy were assigned to the Rushdie conference, and state police say the trooper made the arrest. But after the attack, some longtime visitors to the center wondered why security at the event wasn’t beefed up, given decades of threats against Rushdie and a bounty on his head offering more than 3 million dollars to whoever killed him.
Matar, like other visitors, had been granted passes to enter the Chautauqua institution’s 750-acre grounds, said Michael Hill, president of the institution.
The suspect’s attorney, public defender Nathaniel Barone, said he was still gathering information and declined to comment. Matar’s house was blocked by the authorities.
Rabbi Charles Savenor was among approximately 2,500 people in the audience for Rushdie’s appearance.
The assailant ran onto the platform “and started punching Mr. Rushdie. At first you’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ And then it became very clear within seconds that he was beaten,” Savenor said. He said the attack lasted about 20 seconds.
Another onlooker, Kathleen James, said the attacker was dressed in black, with a black mask.
Amid gasps, onlookers were ushered out of the outdoor amphitheater.
The stabbing reverberated from the sleepy town of Chautauqua to the United Nations, which issued a statement expressing horror at UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and stressing that freedom of expression and of opinion should not be fought with violence.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday’s attack, which was the subject of an evening newscast on Iranian state television.
From the White House, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called the attack “reprehensible” and said the Biden administration wished Rushdie a speedy recovery.
Rushdie was a prominent spokesman for free speech and liberal causes, and the literary world recoiled from what Ian McEwan, a novelist and friend of Rushdie’s, described as “an attack on freedom of thought and expression”.
“Salman has been an inspiring advocate for persecuted writers and journalists around the world,” McEwan said in a statement. “He is a fiery and generous spirit, a man of immense talent and courage and he will not be deterred.”
After the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” often violent protests erupted across the Muslim world against Rushdie, who was born in India to a Muslim family.
At least 45 people were killed in riots over the book, including 12 people in Rushdie’s hometown of Mumbai. In 1991, a Japanese translator of the book was stabbed to death and an Italian translator survived a knife attack. In 1993, the book’s Norwegian publisher was shot three times and survived.
Khomeini died the same year he issued the fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has never issued a fatwa to revoke the edict, although Iran in recent years has not focused on the writer.
Death threats and the bounty drove Rushdie into hiding under a UK government protection scheme, which included a 24-hour armed guard. Rushdie emerged after nine years in solitary confinement and cautiously resumed more public appearances, maintaining his outspoken criticism of religious extremism as a whole.
In 2012 Rushdie published a memoir, “Joseph Anton”, on the fatwa. The title comes from the alias Rushdie used while in hiding. He said at a conference in New York the same year the memoirs came out that terrorism was really the art of fear.
“The only way to defeat it is to decide not to be afraid,” he said.
Rushdie rose to prominence with his 1981 Booker Prize-winning novel “Midnight’s Children,” but his name became known worldwide after “The Satanic Verses.”
LOOK: Salman Rushdie on the nature of fiction
The Chautauqua Institution, about 89 miles southwest of Buffalo in a rural corner of New York, has served for more than a century as a place of reflection and spiritual guidance. Visitors do not go through metal detectors and do not undergo bag checks. Most people leave the doors of their century-old cabins unlocked at night.
The center is known for its summer lecture series, where Rushdie has previously spoken.
During a night vigil, a few hundred residents and visitors gathered for prayer, music and a long moment of silence.
“Hate cannot win,” one man shouted.
Italy reported from New York.