By HILLEL ITALIE and CAROLYN THOMPSON
MAYVILLE, N.Y. (AP) — Salman Rushdie is “on the road to recovery,” his agent confirmed, two days after the author of “The Satanic Verses” suffered serious injuries in a stabbing at a lecture in New York.
The announcement followed news that the lauded writer was removed from a ventilator on Aug. 13 and able to talk. Literary agent Andrew Wylie cautioned that although Rushdie’s “condition is headed in the right direction,” his recovery would be long. Rushdie, 75, suffered a damaged liver and severed nerves in an arm and in an eye that he was likely to lose, Wylie had previously said.
“Though his life changing injuries are severe, his usual feisty & defiant sense of humour remains intact,” Rushdie’s son Zafar Rushdie said in a statement that stressed the author remained in critical condition. The family statement also expressed gratitude for the “audience members who bravely leapt to his defence,“ as well as police, doctors and “the outpouring of love and support.”
Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, New Jersey, pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and assault charges in what a prosecutor called “a targeted, unprovoked, preplanned attack” at western New York’s Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit education and retreat center.
The attack was met with global shock and outrage, along with praise for the man who, for more than three decades—including nine years in hiding under the protection of the British government—has weathered death threats and a $3 million bounty on his head over “The Satanic Verses.”
“It’s an attack against his body, his life and against every value that he stood for,” Henry Reese, 73, told The Associated Press. The cofounder of Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum was on stage with Rushdie and suffered a gash to his forehead, bruising and other minor injuries. They had planned to discuss the need for writers’ safety and freedom of expression.
Authors, activists and government officials cited Rushdie’s bravery and longtime championing of free speech in the face of intimidation. Writer and longtime friend Ian McEwan labeled Rushdie “an inspirational defender of persecuted writers and journalists” and actor-author Kal Penn called him a role model, “especially many of us in the South Asian diaspora.”
“Salman Rushdie—with his insight into humanity, with his unmatched sense for story, with his refusal to be intimidated or silenced—stands for essential, universal ideals,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement. “Truth. Courage. Resilience. The ability to share ideas without fear.”
Rushdie, who was born in India to a Muslim family and has lived in Britain and the U.S., is known for his surreal and satirical prose, beginning with his Booker Prize-winning 1981 novel “Midnight’s Children,” in which he sharply criticized then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Infused with magical realism, 1988’s “The Satanic Verses” drew ire from some Muslims who regarded elements of the novel as blasphemy.
They believed Rushdie insulted the Prophet Muhammad by naming a character Mahound, a medieval corruption of “Muhammad.” The character was a prophet in a city called Jahilia, which in Arabic refers to the time before the advent of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula. Another sequence includes prostitutes that share names with some of Muhammad’s nine wives. The novel also implies that Muhammad, not Allah, may have been the Quran’s real author.
The book had already been banned and burned in India, Pakistan and elsewhere when Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death in 1989. Khomeini died that same year, but the fatwa remains in effect—though Iran, in recent years, hadn’t focused on Rushdie.
Iran’s state-run newspaper, Iran Daily, praised the attack as an “implementation of divine decree.” Another hardline newspaper, Kayhan, termed it “divine revenge” that would partially calm the anger of Muslims.
Investigators were trying to determine whether the suspect, born nearly a decade after the novel’s publication, acted alone. A prosecutor alluded to the standing fatwa as a potential motive in arguing against bail.
“His resources don’t matter to me. We understand that the agenda that was carried out is something that was adopted and it’s sanctioned by larger groups and organizations well beyond the jurisdictional borders of Chautauqua County,” District Attorney Jason Schmidt said.
Schmidt said Matar got an advance pass to the event where the author was speaking and arrived a day early bearing a fake ID. The judge ordered Matar held without bail.
Public defender Nathaniel Barone complained that authorities had taken too long to get Matar in front of a judge, leaving him “hooked up to a bench at the state police barracks,” and stressed that Matar had the right to presumed innocence.
Barone said after the hearing that Matar has been communicating openly with him and that he would try to learn whether his clinet has psychological or addiction issues.
Matar was born in the United States to parents who emigrated from Yaroun in southern Lebanon, village mayor Ali Tehfe told the AP. Flags of the Iran-backed Shia militant group Hezbollah, along with portraits of Hezbollah and Iranian leaders, were visible across Yaroun before journalists visiting were asked to leave.
Hezbollah spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment. Lebanon’s top Shiite Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Kabalan vilified Rushdie in a speech without directly endorsing the attack, saying the author was “the cheapest and worst personality to deal with history and heritage by fabricating lies and hypocrisies.”
In Tehran, some Iranians interviewed by the AP praised the attack on an author they believe tarnished the Islamic faith, while others worried it would further isolate their country.
A state trooper and a county sheriff’s deputy were assigned to Rushdie’s lecture, and police said the trooper made the arrest. But afterward, some longtime visitors to the bucolic vacation colony questioned why there wasn’t tighter security given the history of threats against Rushdie.
On Aug. 12, an AP reporter witnessed the attacker stab or punch Rushdie about 10 or 15 times. Reese, the moderator, told CNN he initially thought the attack was a prank.
News about the stabbing has led to renewed interest in “The Satanic Verses,” which topped bestseller lists after the fatwa was issued in 1989. As of Aug. 14, the novel ranked No. 11 on Amazon.com’s list.
One of Rushdie’s ex-wives, the author and television host Padma Lakshmi, tweeted that she was “relieved” by Rushdie’s prognosis.
“Worried and wordless, can finally exhale,“ she wrote. “Now hoping for swift healing.”