Salman Rushdie in hospital amid outrage over his stabbing

Salman Rushdie loaded onto medical evacuation helicopter

Novelist Salman Rushdie being loaded onto a medical evacuation helicopter near the Chautauqua Institution on August 12, 2022 after being stabbed in the neck while speaking on stage in Chautauqua, New York.

Photo credit: Horatio Gates | AFP

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Salman Rushdie remained hospitalised in serious condition Saturday after being stabbed at a literary event in New York state in a shocking assault that triggered widespread 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 in a Pennsylvania hospital following Friday's assault. His agent said he will likely lose an eye.

President Joe Biden on Saturday called it a "vicious" attack and offered prayers for Rushdie's recovery.

"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. Truth. Courage. Resilience," Biden said in a statement.

"We reaffirm our commitment to those deeply American values in solidarity with Rushdie and all those who stand for freedom of expression."

Stabbed in neck and abdomen

On Friday, a 24-year-old man from New Jersey, Hadi Matar, rushed the stage where Rushdie was about to deliver a lecture and stabbed him in the neck and abdomen.

He has been formally charged with attempted murder, but police provided no information on his background or what might have motivated him.

Beyond Rushdie's eye injury, the nerves in one of his arms were severed and his liver was damaged, according to his agent Andrew Wylie.

The 75-year-old novelist 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.

Fury over novel

The fatwa followed publication of the novel The Satanic Verses, which sparked fury among some Muslims who believed it was blasphemous.

In a recent interview with Germany's Stern magazine, Rushdie spoke of how, after so many years living with death threats, his life was "getting back to normal."

"For whatever it was, eight or nine years, it was quite serious," he told a Stern correspondent in New York.

"But ever since I've been living in America, since the year 2000, really there hasn't been a problem in all that time."

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.

Security was not particularly tight at Friday's event at the Chautauqua Institution, which hosts arts programs in a tranquil lakeside community near Buffalo.

Witnesses said Rushdie was seated onstage and preparing to speak when Matar sprang up from the audience and managed to stab him several times before being wrestled to the ground by staff and other spectators.

Matar's family apparently came from a border village called Yaroun in southern Lebanon. 

Journalists turned away

An AFP reporter who visited the village Saturday was told 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.

"The Satanic Verses" and its author remain deeply inflammatory in Iran. When asked by AFP on Saturday, nobody in Tehran's main book market dared to openly condemn the stabbing.

"I was very happy to hear the news," said Mehrab Bigdeli, a man in his 50s studying to become a Muslim cleric.

The message was similar in Iran's conservative media, 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."

Shock and outrage

Elsewhere there was widespread shock and outrage.

British leader Boris Johnson said he was "appalled," while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the attack "reprehensible" and "cowardly."

Messages also flooded in from the literary world, with Joyce Carol Oates calling it "terrible, tragic news" and Rushdie's close friend Ian McEwan calling him an "inspirational defender of persecuted writers and journalists across the world."

Wrote memoir in hiding

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.

But his 1988 book The Satanic Verses transformed his life. 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.

Since moving to New York, Rushdie has been an outspoken advocate of freedom of speech and has continued writing -- including a memoir, "Joseph Anton," named after his alias while in hiding.

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