Salman Rushdie: how bad has he been injured, who is the novelist, why is The Satanic Verses controversial?

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Hadi Matar has been charged over the attack on the Booker Prize winner who was the subject of a fatwa issued in 1989

Sir Salman Rushdie has made an emotional and unexpected return to public life for the first time since he was brutally stabbed in a knife attack.

The acclaimed novelist surprised audiences by attending the annual gala of PEN America on Thursday (18 May) and giving the literary event’s final speech as he accepted a special prize, the PEN Centenary Courage Award. The event comes just nine months being after Sir Salman was stabbed repeatedly during an appearance in New York state.

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Sir Salman, 75, received a standing ovation after telling hundreds gathered at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City: “It’s nice to be back – as opposed to not being back, which was also a possibility. I’m glad the dice rolled this way,”

It was his first in-person appearance at a public event since he was attacked last August while on stage at a literary festival in Western New York. Sir Salman, whose attendance had not been announced beforehand, spoke briefly, and dedicated some of his remarks to those who came to his help at the Chautauqua Institution, a non-profit education and retreat centre.

He cited a fellow attendee, Henry Reese of the City of Asylum project in Pittsburgh, for tackling the assailant and thanked audience members who also stepped in. Sir Salman added: “I accept this award, therefore, on behalf of all those who came to my rescue. I was the target that day, but they were the heroes.

“The courage, that day, was all theirs, and I thank them for saving my life. And I have one last thing to add. It’s this: Terror must not terrorise us. Violence must not deter us. La lutte continue. La lutta continua. The struggle goes on.”

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Earlier this week, he delivered a video message to the British Book Awards, where he was given a Freedom to Publish prize. Sir Salman was clearly elated to attend the gala, but his voice sounded frailer than it once did and the right frame of his glasses was dark, concealing the eye blinded by his attacker.

PEN galas have long been a combination of literature, politics, activism and celebrity, with attendees ranging from Alec Baldwin to senator Angus King of Maine.

Salman Rushdie and Ayad Akhtar appear on stage at the 2023 PEN America Literary Gala. Picture: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for PEN AmericaSalman Rushdie and Ayad Akhtar appear on stage at the 2023 PEN America Literary Gala. Picture: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for PEN America
Salman Rushdie and Ayad Akhtar appear on stage at the 2023 PEN America Literary Gala. Picture: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for PEN America | Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for PEN America

While it was known that Sir Salman had been gravely injured in the stabbing, the extend of the seriousness of his injuries were not initially revealed. However his agent Andrew Wylie confirmed in an interview with Spain’s El País last year that the Satanic Verses author had lost sight in one eye and the use of one of his hands.

Sir Salman was stabbed on Friday 12 August 2022 while attending an event in western New York. His attacker, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, has pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the assault through his lawyer.

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The Indian-born Briton, whose novel The Satanic Verses led to death threats from Iran in the 1980s, was about to deliver a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution, 65 miles from Buffalo in New York state, when he was attacked. He was taken to hospital by helicopter after the attack.

An Iranian government official has denied that Tehran was involved in the assault on author Sir Salman. Nasser Kanaani, the spokesman of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said: “We, in the incident of the attack on Salman Rushdie in the US, do not consider that anyone deserves blame and accusations except him and his supporters. Nobody has right to accuse Iran in this regard.”

Sir Salman’s book The Satanic Verses has been banned in Iran since 1988, as many Muslims view it as blasphemous, and its publication prompted Iran’s then-leader Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa calling for his execution.

What did his family say after the attack?

Sir Salman’s son, Zafar Rushdie issued a statement on social media. He said: “Following the attack on Friday, my father remains in critical condition in hospital receiving extensive ongoing medical treatment.

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“We are extremely relieved that yesterday he was taken off the ventilator and additional oxygen and he was able to say a few words. Though his life changing injuries are severe, his usual fiesty and defiant sense of humour remains intact.

“We are so grateful to all the audience members who bravely leapt to his defence and administrated first aid along with the police and the doctors who have cared for him and for the outpouring of love and support from around the world. We ask for continued patience and privacy as the family come together at his bedside to support him through this time.”

What have police said?

Sir Salman was stabbed at least once in the neck and once in the abdomen, according to police officials, before he was taken to hospital.

New York state police have named the suspected attacker as Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, New Jersey, and he has been arrested for attempted murder and assault.

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The police later that Matar has been transported to Chautauqua County Jail and will be arraigned later in the day.

Has Hadi Matar appeared in court?

The man accused of stabbing him pleaded not guilty on Saturday to charges of attempted murder and assault, in what a prosecutor called a “pre-planned” crime.

A lawyer for Hadi Matar, 24, entered the plea on his behalf during a formal hearing at a court in western New York.

Matar appeared in court wearing a black and white jumpsuit and a white face mask, with his hands cuffed in front of him.

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A judge ordered him to be held without bail after district attorney Jason Schmidt told her Matar took steps to purposely put himself in a position to harm Sir Salman, getting an advance pass to the event where the author was speaking and arriving a day early with a fake ID.

“This was a targeted, unprovoked, pre-planned attack on Mr Rushdie,” Mr Schmidt said.

Public defender Nathaniel Barone said the authorities had taken too long to get Matar in front of a judge, while leaving him “hooked up to a bench at the state police barracks”.

“He has that constitutional right of presumed innocence,” Mr Barone added.

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Who is Salman Rushdie and why is he controversial?

Born in Bombay, British India, in 1946, he is an author whose work combines magical realism with historical fiction.

His second novel Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981 - it has since been deemed the “best winner of all time” on two occasions, marking the award’s 25th and 40th anniversaries.

However, he sparked controversy with his fourth novel The Satanic Verses which was published in 1988.

The book was accused of blasphomy by Muslims and of mocking their faith.

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It sparked protests and outrage following its publication - it has been banned in Iran since 1988 and it is also banned in India for hate speech.

Iran’s late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, calling for Sir Salman’s death in 1989.

Salman Rushdie is among a stellar line-up for Edinburgh International Book Festival (Picture: Herbert Neubauer/APA/AFP via Getty Images)Salman Rushdie is among a stellar line-up for Edinburgh International Book Festival (Picture: Herbert Neubauer/APA/AFP via Getty Images)
Salman Rushdie is among a stellar line-up for Edinburgh International Book Festival (Picture: Herbert Neubauer/APA/AFP via Getty Images)

Why are The Satanic Verses so controversial?

The book is accused of blasphomy, in particular because parts of the novel reference events in the Quran.

In the Muslim faith, the Prophet Muhammed was visited by the angel Gibreel over a 22 year period and he recited God’s words to the prophet.

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The Conversation reports that in The Satanic Verses, a character Gibreel Farishta becomes his name sake Gibreel in a series of dreams and “encounters another central character in ways that echo Islam’s traditional account of the angel’s encounters with Muhammed”.

Another controversial part of the novel is the fact that Rushdie choses to use a provocative name for Muhammed - using Mahound, which was “an alternative name for Muhammed sometimes used during the Middle Ages by Christians who considered him a devil.”

In the book, Mahound “puts his own words into the angel Gibreel’s mouth and delivers edicts to his followers that conveniently bolster his self-serving purposes”, which outraged Muslims because it implies that rather than God, the Prophet Muhammed is himself the source of revealed truths.

Many protests were held against the book, including one in Bradford in 1989 were a public book burning took place.

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What is a fatwa?

In 1989, a year after the publication of the book, Iran’s then leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, calling for Sir Salman’s death.

It came after a violet riot protesting the book in Pakistan.

According to Merriam Webster, a fatwa is “a legal opinion or decree handed down by an Islamic religious leader”.

Following the issuing of the fatwa, Sir Salman spent years living in hiding.

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There have been attempts to revoke the fatwa, including in 1998 as part of an effort to restore diplomatic relations between UK and Iran.

However in 2006, the Iranian state news agency reported that the fatwa will remain in place permanently because only the person who had issued it could revoke it and Ayatollah Khomeini had died.

Why was Salman Rushdie in New York?

Sir Salman was due to speak to Henry Reese, from the City of Asylum organisation, a residency programme for writers living in exile under threat of persecution, when he was attacked.

They were due to discuss America’s role as an asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression.

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The Chautauqua Institution, which was hosting the lecture, tweeted about the incident, writing: “We ask for your prayers for Salman Rushdie and Henry Reese, and patience as we fully focus on co-ordinating with police officials following a tragic incident at the amphitheatre today.”

Its president Michael Hill said: “What we experienced at Chautauqua today is an incident unlike anything in our nearly 150-year history.

“We were founded to bring people together and community to learn and in doing so, to 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.”

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