Explainer: Who is Salman Rushdie, and why was he attacked?

Explainer: Who is Salman Rushdie, and why was he attacked?
Though controversy and even death threats have followed him for decades, India-born British-American novelist Salman Rushdie has lead as public a life as possible
4 min read
13 August, 2022
Salman Rushdie's most controversial work, 'The Satanic Verses', was published in 1988 [Getty]

On 12 August, acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie prepared to step on stage at a book event in quiet upstate New York. 

The India-born British-American citizen had been targeted for years over allegations of blasphemy and insulting the Prophet Muhammad, who Muslims consider a messenger of God.

Accustomed to criticism, insult, and even death threats, he continued to lead as public a life as possible. 

However, after decades avoiding serious physical attack, the 75-year-old’s fate changed on Friday.

Chaos at Chautauqua 

Rushdie was due to speak at a lecturer series at the Chautauqua Institution.

But just as the event got underway, a man, dressed all in black according to eyewitnesses, rushed on stage and started punching and stabbing Rushdie.

Some audience members initially thought it was a stunt, but it quickly became clear that Rushdie’s life was in serious danger. 

Event moderator Henry Reese and a police officer rushed to the author’s aide. 

Rushdie was flown to a hospital and underwent surgery. He was on a ventilator Friday evening with a damaged liver and severed nerves in his arm. Doctors said he is likely to lose an eye. 

Police identified the attacker as 24-year-old Hadi Matar, of Fairview, New Jersey.

They said that their preliminary social media review found Matar to be "sympathetic to Shia extremism" and to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) - but that his exact motive for attacking Rushdie was still unclear.

No stranger to controversy 

Rushdie was born in India to a Muslim family two months before India gained independence from Britain. 

At 14, he was sent to study in England and later secured a place at the prestigious Kings College Cambridge

Rushdie’s made his name as an author with the publication of ‘Midnight’s Children’ in 1981. 

In 1988, his most controversial work was released: 'The Satanic Verses’.  

The surrealist post-modern novel follows the story of Indian Muslims living in England. It was denounced as blasphemous by Muslims across the world who saw one of its characters as an insult to the Prophet Muhammad. 

Some 45 people were killed in subsequent riots over the novel and multiple translators have been attacked. 

The book was banned in Iran, where the late leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a 1989 fatwa - or edict - calling for Rushdie’s death. 

Yet the book became a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Rushdie - who has since expressed his regret for the distress caused publication of the novel - went into hiding under a British government protection program after its release. 

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What Rushdie did next? 

Following nine years of seclusion, Rushdie re-emerged into public life. 

Iranian leader Khomeini died that same year he issued a fatwa against Rushdie. Current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has never issued a fatwa of his own against the author. However, he once said threats against Rushdie were "fired like a bullet that won’t rest until it hits its target". 

Nevertheless, determined not to be defeated by efforts to intimidate and silence him, Rushdie became an advocate for freedom of speech across the world. 

"The best thing I can do is to go on being the best writer I can be and to lead as open a professional and personal life as I can. It’s just a way of saying, there may be this danger and it’s a terrible thing… and we need to fight it and we need to defeat it," he told CNN

Rushdie later released a series of works, including a memoir about his experiences in hiding. In 2007, he was knighted by the Queen of England for his services to literature. 

As time passed, the author lived an increasingly public life, appearing at several events and travelling widely.

However, the threat of an attack was everpresent.