Jun 12, 2023

Salman Rushdie: Author stabbed at Chautauqua Institution; suspect arrested

CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. — Visitors expecting a dazzling lecture from author Salman Rushdie on Friday at the Chautauqua Institution were instead left horrified when a knife-wielding man rushed the stage and stabbed Rushdie multiple times.

The incident, which occurred shortly before 11 a.m. at the institution's 4,000-seat amphitheater, left Rushdie, 75, with stab wounds in the neck and abdomen, according to New York State Police.

Rushdie was given immediate first aid by a doctor in the audience before emergency medical services arrived. He was later flown by helicopter to UPMC Hamot Erie where he underwent surgery.

What we know:Find updates here on Salman Rushdie's condition.

Rushdie, who's lived under a longstanding fatwa — or an essential death threat from Iran's leadership due to his writings, which many Muslims consider blasphemous — has been able to elude harm for nearly 40 years.

Rushdie's agent, Andrew Wylie, said the author was on a ventilator Friday evening, with a damaged liver, severed nerves in an arm and an eye he is likely to lose, according to a report from the Associated Press, which reported at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday that he was still hospitalized.

On Saturday morning, the Associated Press reported Rushdie was taken off a ventilator and was able to talk. The information was confirmed by Wylie, which was tweeted by author Aatish Taseer.

On Sunday morning, Wylie stated Rushdie's "condition is headed in the right direction," noting that the recovery process will be lengthy.

Henry Reese, co-founder of the Pittsburgh nonprofit City of Asylum, was also attacked on stage and suffered a minor facial injury. Police said Reese, 73, was taken to an Erie hospital by ambulance and later released.

New York State Police identified the attacker as 24-year-old Hadi Matar of Fairview, New Jersey.

Authorities said several members of the institution's staff, as well as audience members, rushed Matar on stage and forced him to the floor. The New York State Police on Friday said a trooper next to the stage "immediately" took Matar into custody, with the help of a Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office deputy. Both were assigned to provide security for the event.

The State Police said the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office also brought in an explosive detection K-9 dog that assisted in clearing a bag the suspect had with him.

State Police Maj. Eugene Staniszewski said Matar was likely acting alone. He said police were in the process of obtaining search warrants for a backpack and electronic devices located at the scene. He could not confirm Matar's nationality or whether he had a criminal background.

On Saturday, Chautauqua County District Attorney Jason Schmidt said Matar had been formally charged with second-degree attempted murder for the attack on Rushdie and second-degree assault for the attack on Reese.

He said Matar has been remanded to the Chautauqua County Jail without bail. Schmidt said a motive for the attack remains unclear.

"We know that Mr. Rushdie is a controversial novelist and we're all aware of the history here. But aside from that, we don't have any information yet to determine exactly what the motive was," Schmidt told the Times-News. "Anything at this point would be speculation."

He said his office is working with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as counterparts in New Jersey to develop further evidence that may lead to additional charges.

More:Suspect in Salman Rushdie attack from Bergen County, New Jersey

David Johnson, a Pittsburgh resident who was in the audience, said he saw the attacker dressed in dark clothing as he rushed the stage and tackled Rushdie.

Johnson said he couldn't see the full extent of Rushdie's injuries but said there was "blood spatter" in a panel behind Rushdie's chair.

"There was so much screaming in the amphitheater," Johnson told the Erie Times-News. "It's just beyond your imagination that someone could be attacked like this."

Johnson, who has been visiting the institution for 31 years, said people were still stunned hours afterward.

Following the attack, the amphitheater was evacuated and its programs were canceled for the day, according to the institution.

New York State Police and members of the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office were seen providing additional security at the institution's main entrance, which caused a backlog of vehicles and visitors trying to enter the grounds.

At 12:45 pm. the institution restored normal security measures.

Wisconsin resident Sara Klawitter had been waiting for more than an hour to get inside. "I've been coming here since the 1950s and I've seen nothing like this before," she said.

Erie lawyer Paul Susko, who attended the lecture with his son, said they had front-row seats on the side of the stage where Rushdie was attacked.

Susko said he was surprised more security was not in place.

"There was no security stopping us from getting to the stage," Susko said. "There was zero security visible around the stage at the time of the attack."

He said the trooper on the scene "did not immediately take the attacker into custody," but rather remained at the top of the amphitheater while others were wrestling with the attacker, and then rushed down the steps.

"The lack of security for a guest who is the subject of a fatwa was shocking," Susko said.

The fatwa refers to the edict issued by Iran's leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini which calls for Rushdie's death for penning the 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses," which many Muslims consider blasphemous.

USA Today report:'Satanic Verses' author Salman Rushdie on a ventilator following attack, suspect named

"There was screening to prevent attendees from bringing in a cup of coffee. Maybe screening for weapons would have been more helpful. This never should have happened in my opinion," Susko said.

Normal security at the institution entrance involves staffed gates where passes are checked. Authorities said Matar had a pass to access the grounds.

Chautauqua County Institution President Michael Hill on Friday said the appropriate level of security is assessed for every event at the institution. He said a state trooper and a sheriff's deputy were specifically requested and were on site for the Rushdie event.

Hill said the institution, along with law enforcement partners, will conduct a review of the incident.

"We take our security measures very, very seriously," Hill said. "Chautauqua has always been an extremely safe place and we will continue to be working to keep that tradition going."

Hill said the institution will continue with its summer programming as scheduled.

"We will return to our podiums and our pulpits at Chautauqua and we will continue to convene the critical conversations that will help bring empathy — obviously, which is now more important than ever," he said.

Hill said updates to any programming will be put on the institution's website at

"What we experienced at Chautauqua today is an incident unlike anything we've experienced in our nearly 150-year history," he said. "We were founded to bring people together in community to learn, and in doing so, create solutions through action, to develop empathy and to take on intractable problems. Today now, we're called to take on fear and the worst of all human traits: hate."

Hill, who called Rushdie one of the most significant champions of freedom of speech, said the institution will continue to invite speakers who are "talking about the most important issues in the country," and who aim to build bridges.

"I think the worst thing Chautauqua could do is to back away from its mission in light of this tragedy, and I don't think Mr. Rushdie would want that either," Hill said.

In a statement Friday, the Muslim Public Affairs Council condemned the attack on Rushdie, stating "freedom of speech and expression is a concept that is woven into the fabric of our faith dating back to the time of the Prophet."

"Time and time again, the Prophet was the recipient of verbal abuse because of what he preached. However, he always insisted that there should not be retaliation — instead the response should be shown through moral authority and perseverance. MPAC has been a vanguard of the right of freedom of speech, tracing our work back to 1989 when we spoke out against the fatwa issued against Mr. Rushdie. Freedom of expression is a constitutional and Islamic human right. It is utterly tragic that Mr. Rushdie was assaulted in a public space for his ideas and opinions.

"The Muslim Public Affairs Council condemns any act of violence which infringes upon one's security and wellbeing. Insulting rhetoric should not be met with violence, regardless of the circumstance. Rather, it should be countered with better ideas and alternative thought if not ignored altogether."

A vigil was held at the Chautauqua Institution Friday evening, with remarks by CI President Michael E. Hill. The full vigil can be viewed here.

In part, Hill said:

"What we experienced at Chautauqua today is unlike anything in our 150-year history. It was an act of violence, an act of hatred and a violation of one of the things we have always cherished most: the safety and tranquility of our grounds and our ability to convene the most important conversations, even if those conversations are difficult.

"This evening, we are called to take on fear and the worst of all human traits — hate. We can take the experience of hatred and reflect on what it means for today. Or we can come together even more strongly as a community who takes what happened today and commits to not allowing that hatred be any part of our own hearts."

Rushdie's lecture at Chautauqua was scheduled to be with Reese, whom the institution described as "co-founder and president of City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, which was founded in 2004 to provide sanctuary in Pittsburgh to writers exiled under threat of persecution."

Rushdie is the author of 12 novels, six of which are USA TODAY best sellers, most notably "The Satanic Verses," which has been banned in Iran since 1988, as many Muslims consider it to be blasphemous. A year later, Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa, or edict, that called for Rushdie's death.

Iran's government has since formally distanced itself from Khomeini's decree, but anti-Rushdie sentiment lingers. In 2012, a semi-official Iranian religious foundation raised the bounty for Rushdie from $2.8 million to $3.3 million.

Rushdie dismissed that threat at the time, saying there was "no evidence" of people being interested in the reward.

Rushdie in 2012 published a memoir, "Joseph Anton," about the fatwa.

Rushdie's most recent novel, "Quichotte," was published in 2019. In it, Rushdie puts his spin on the Cervantes classic with a modern-day Don Quixote, satirizing President Donald Trump's America. The book has been long-listed for the Booker Prize.

A.J. Rao can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @ETNRao.

What we know: More: USA Today report: