Author Salman Rushdie, whose writings have made him the target of Iranian death threats, was on a ventilator and could lose an eye after he was repeatedly stabbed at a literary event in New York state on Friday.
Following the attack just before 11:00 a.m. local time Rushdie, 75, was airlifted to the hospital where he underwent emergency surgery. His agent said in a statement to The New York Times that “the news is not good.”
“Salman will likely lose one eye, the nerves in his arm were severed, and his liver was stabbed and damaged,” said agent Andrew Wylie, who added that Rushdie was not able to speak.
New York state police identified the suspect involved in the attack as Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old from Fairfield, New Jersey. He was arrested at the scene and was awaiting arraignment, and police said they believed he had been operating alone. A motive for the attack remained unclear, police said.
A law enforcement official told NBC News that, according to a review of his social media activity, the suspect had sympathies for Shia Muslim extremists and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. There were no known direct links to the IRGC.
Local police and the FBI were investigating and had closed off the street around Matar’s New Jersey home.
A backpack found at the scene of the attack was believed to belong to the assailant and was checked by a bomb squad. Police were working to get warrants to search the bag and some electronic devices, police said.
The attack occurred at the Chautauqua Institution, which hosts arts programs in a tranquil lakeside community 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of the city of Buffalo in western New York State.
Police said Rushdie was stabbed in the neck as well as the abdomen. A number of people rushed to the stage and took the suspect to the ground, before a trooper present at the event arrested him.
An Associated Press reporter witnessed a man confront Rushdie on stage and punch or stab him 10 to 15 times as he was being introduced. The author was pushed or fell to the floor, and the man was arrested.
A doctor in the audience administered medical care until emergency first responders arrived. An interviewer onstage, 73-year-old Ralph Henry Reese, suffered a facial injury but has been released from the hospital, police said.
Dr. Martin Haskell, a physician who was among those who rushed to help, described Rushdie’s wounds as “serious but recoverable.”
Carl LeVan, an American University politics professor attending the event, told AFP he saw the suspect run onto the stage where Rushdie was seated and “stabbed him repeatedly and viciously.”
LeVan, a Chautauqua regular, said the suspect “was trying to stab him as many times as possible before he was subdued,” adding that he believed the man “was trying to kill” Rushdie.
“There were gasps of horror and panic from the crowd,” the professor said.
LeVan said witnessing the event had left him “shaken,” adding he considered Chautauqua a safe place of creative freedom.
“To know that this happened here, and to see it — it was horrific,” he said. “What I saw today was the essence of intolerance.”
Another witness, John Stein, told ABC that the assailant “started stabbing on the right side of the head, of the neck. And there was blood… erupting.”
Rushdie, 75, was propelled into the spotlight with his second novel “Midnight’s Children” in 1981, which won international praise and Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for its portrayal of post-independence India.
But his 1988 book “The Satanic Verses” brought attention beyond his imagination when it sparked a fatwa, or religious decree, calling for his death by Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The novel was considered by some Muslims as disrespectful of the Prophet Mohammed.
Rushdie, who was born in India to non-practicing Muslims and today identifies as an atheist, was forced to go underground as a bounty of over $3 million was put on his head — which remains today.
He was granted police protection by the government in Britain, where he was at school and where he made his home, following the murder or attempted murder of some of his translators and publishers.
He spent nearly a decade in hiding, moving houses repeatedly and being unable to tell his children where he lived.
Rushdie only began to emerge from his life on the run in the late 1990s after Iran in 1998 said it would not support his assassination.
Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has never issued a fatwa of his own withdrawing the edict.
On the 30th anniversary of the fatwa, Khamenei said on Twitter, “Imam Khomeini’s verdict regarding Salman Rushdie is based on divine verses and just like divine verses, it is solid and irrevocable.” Twitter removed the post and suspended Khamenei’s account.
Now living in New York, Rushdie is an advocate of freedom of speech, notably launching a strong defense of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo after its staff were gunned down by Islamists in Paris in 2015.
The magazine had published drawings of Mohammed that drew furious reactions from Muslims worldwide.
Threats and boycotts continue against literary events that Rushdie attends, and his knighthood in 2007 sparked protests in Iran and Pakistan, where a government minister said the award justified suicide bombings.
The fatwa failed to stifle Rushdie’s writing and inspired his memoir “Joseph Anton,” named after his alias while in hiding and written in the third person.
“Midnight’s Children” — which runs to more than 600 pages — has been adapted for the stage and silver screen, and his books have been translated into more than 40 languages.