Salman Rushdie said fatwa was ‘long ago’ and life was now ‘relatively normal’ just weeks before attack

·6-min read
Rushdie - MPI10/MPI/Capital Pictures
Rushdie - MPI10/MPI/Capital Pictures

Sir Salman Rushdie said he was now living without tight security measures because he thought he was safe just weeks before being brutally stabbed on stage.

The author of The Satanic Verses told a German magazine the fatwa against him was “long ago” and his life was now “relatively normal”.

Despite Rushdie’s own optimism, questions were raised on Saturday over why his attacker was not required to undergo security checks for a knife before being allowed into the venue.

Organisers had reportedly rejected extra security measures because it would change the “friendly feel and openness” of the literary festival, and create a barrier between speakers and their audience.

The Telegraph understands that the suspect Hadi Matar, 24, who has been charged with attempted murder in the second degree, would have passed by a police officer, and a sniffer dog trained to detect explosives, before entering the amphitheatre.

However, the dog would not have detected a knife, and there were no metal detectors or bag searches conducted by hand, nor barriers around the stage.

New York State Police did assign a trooper to the event, who was positioned next to the stage.

It was that officer who tackled the knifeman and ultimately arrested him, potentially helping to save Rushdie’s life in the process.

The Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office had provided the “explosive detection K9” which assisted in “clearing a bag the suspect had” before he entered, a police spokesman said.

Rushdie was speaking at the Chautauqua Institution, a bucolic lakeside resort 70 miles south of Buffalo, New York.

The institution is in a gated community and Matar had purchased a pass to get onto the grounds, just like other attendees.

Michael Hill, the institution’s president, defended the security measures.

He said: “We assess for every event what we think the appropriate security level is, and this one was certainly one that we thought was important, which is why we had a state trooper and sheriff presence there.”

However, an usher who was 15ft away from the attack, told the New York Times “something like this was just bound to happen”.

Another former employee of the institution told the Daily Beast he was “absolutely disgusted” that previous suggestions for metal detectors, the banning of bags from the hall, and more guards, had all been rejected in recent years.

Rushdie had laid out his own thoughts on the current security threat to him in an interview with Stern, the German magazine, which was conducted two weeks ago but only published after the attack.

He said: “My life is very normal again. I was 36 when I started The Satanic Verses. I'm 75 now. It’s been four decades.”

The author said if social media had existed when he wrote the book, then his situation would have been “infinitely more dangerous”.

The magazine reported that the author believed the danger was “over”.

However, in a discussion about political violence in the United States, Rushdie added: “The bad thing is that death threats have become commonplace. I’m an optimist by nature. I’m looking forward.”

On Friday morning at 10.47am, Rushdie had just been seated on the stage alongside interviewer Henry Reese from City of Asylum, a programme for exiled writers.

Witnesses described how the lack of security meant the attacker was able to jump on from the side of the stage unimpeded and begin stabbing Rushdie.

One witness said she initially thought it was a “stunt” but within a few seconds realised it was a savage attack.

Members of the audience of about 2,500 people rushed onto the stage.

Amid chaotic scenes, some jumped on the attacker and others tried to help Rushdie, who was lying a few feet away, and a knife was seen falling to the floor of the stage.

Paula Voell, a former reporter for the Buffalo News, who was there, said: “There was horror, the whole audience reacted, and probably 15 spectators raced onto the stage to try to attend to him.”

A witness in the front row said: “It took like five men to pull him [the attacker] away and he was still stabbing. He was just furious, furious. Like intensely strong and just fast.”

Afterwards, several dozen people formed a prayer circle, praying in English and Hebrew.

Ed Klotz, a witness to the attack, told The Telegraph: “I've been coming here 25 years, and I’ve never felt that safety was a concern.”

In a statement Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s national security advisor said it was a “reprehensible” attack.

He said: “This act of violence is appalling. All of us in the Biden-Harris administration are praying for his speedy recovery.

“We are thankful to good citizens and first responders for helping Mr Rushdie so quickly after the attack, and to law enforcement for its swift and effective work, which is ongoing.”

The suspect, who lived seven hours drive away in New Jersey, was believed to have stayed the night before the event at the nearby Athenaeum Hotel.

He ate dinner at the Heirloom restaurant in Chautauqua, where waiters said there had been “little interaction” with him.

Chautauqua, a small town of 4,000 people in the far corner of western New York, plays host to an eclectic cultural programme each summer.

Writers, politicians and spiritual leaders gather to share their ideas, while opera singers and orchestras perform into the evenings.

Rushdie, who had attended before, was described in the event’s pamphlet as “one of the most celebrated authors of our time”.

He was there to discuss “the United States as an asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression”.

Rushdie was on Saturday night still on a ventilator at UPMC Hamot in nearby Erie, Pennsylvania.

His agent Andrew Wylie said on Friday night: “The news is not good. Salman will likely lose one eye; the nerves in his arm were severed, and his liver was stabbed and damaged.”

There has been no update on his condition since then.

Baroness D’Souza, a friend of the author, said Rushdie had known a day might come when he could be attacked, despite living a freer life in the US.

She told the Today programme how, at a dinner party two decades ago, the writer Graham Swift had said: “I think there’s only one way this thing can end.”

“It was so chilling. We all felt perhaps he’s right that the only way this is going to end is if Salman is actually attacked,” she said.

She added: “He lived with it for years and he knew. He knew.”