Salman Rushdie remained hospitalized in serious condition Saturday after being stabbed at a literary event in New York state in a shocking assault that triggered international outrage, but drew applause from hardliners in Iran and Pakistan.
The British author, who spent years under police protection after Iranian leaders ordered his killing, underwent emergency surgery and was placed on a ventilator after Friday’s assault in which a 24-year-old man, Hadi Matar, rushed the stage where Rushdie was about to deliver a lecture and stabbed him in the neck and abdomen.
According to his agent Andrew Wylie, the nerves in one of Rushdie’s arms were severed and his liver damaged in the attack, and he "will likely lose one eye."
Rushdie, 75, had been living under an effective death sentence since 1989 when Iran’s then supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a religious decree, or fatwa, ordering Muslims to kill the writer.
The fatwa followed publication of the novel “The Satanic Verses” which sparked fury among some Muslims who believed it was blasphemous.
Assailant raised in US
Rushdie moved to New York in the early 2000s and became a US citizen in 2016. Despite the continued threat to his life, he was increasingly seen in public -– often without noticeable security.
And security was not particularly tight at Friday’s event at the Chautauqua Institution, which hosts arts programs in a tranquil lakeside community in western New York state.
According to witnesses, Rushdie was seated on an auditorium stage and preparing to speak when Matar jumped up from the audience and managed to stab him several times before being wrestled to the ground by staff and other spectators. Matar was finally cuffed and taken into police custody.
A doctor in the audience provided emergency first aid on the spot before Rushdie was airlifted by helicopter to the hospital in nearby Erie.
State police said Matar, from Fairfax, New Jersey, had been formally charged with attempted murder, but otherwise provided no information on his background or what might have motivated him.
His family apparently came from a border village called Yaroun in southern Lebanon. An AFP reporter who visited the village Saturday was told that that Matar’s parents were divorced and his father –- a shepherd –- still lived there. Journalists who approached his father’s home were turned away.
Matar was "born and raised in the US," the head of the local municipality, Ali Qassem Tahfa, told AFP.
While Khomeini’s original fatwa has ceased to be a part of daily discourse in Iran for some time, the clerical leadership under his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei did nothing to indicate it no longer stood and, on occasion, underlined the decree was still valid.
Conservative media in Iran hailed Friday's attack, with one state-owned paper saying the "neck of the devil" had been "cut by a razor."
In Pakistan, a spokesman for the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan –- a party that has staged violent protests against what it deems to be anti-Muslim blasphemy -- said Rushdie "deserved to be killed."
Elsewhere there was widespread shock and outrage, along with expressions of support and solidarity for the writer.
British leader Boris Johnson said he was "appalled," while in Washington, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called it a "reprehensible” attack.
Rushdie 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.
Wrote memoir in hiding
But his 1988 book "The Satanic Verses" transformed his life when the resulting fatwa forced him into nearly a decade in hiding, moving houses repeatedly and being unable to tell even his children where he lived.
Even as the need for constant security began to diminish in the late 1990s, threats and boycotts continued against literary events that Rushdie attended. His knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 2007 sparked protests in Iran and Pakistan, where a government minister said the honor justified suicide bombings.
Since moving to New York Rushdie has been an outspoken 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 fatwa and other threats 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.
Suzanne Nossel, head of the PEN America organization, said the free speech advocacy group was "reeling from shock and horror."
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