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The assault on Salman Rushdie: "An attack on freedom of expression"

The attack on Salman Rushdie, and on free speech
The attack on Salman Rushdie, and on free speech 04:27

It played out in front of a horrified audience Friday, when famed author Salman Rushdie was stabbed at a speaking engagement at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, N.Y. Police said a man in the audience suddenly rushed the stage and attacked him.

Also injured was the event's moderator, Henry Reese. "There was an attack on freedom of expression, and someone who was probably just a luminary in the world," Reese told correspondent Lee Cowan. "He's not one to back away from a fight."

Indeed, Rushdie was there to talk about how the United States was a safe haven for exiled writers.

Before he could get a word out, the assault happened. The 75-year-old was then airlifted to a nearby hospital in Pennsylvania, where he underwent surgery for multiple stab wounds. Although those wounds are considered serious, he's said to be off a ventilator, and able to speak.  

Rushdie's life in hiding began in 1989, when outrage over his novel, "The Satanic Verses," reached a fever pitch all around the world. The 547-page volume fictionalized parts of the life of Muhammad, making controversial references to the Prophet himself, Islam, and the Quran.

It was almost instantly banned in several countries, including Bangladesh, Sudan, Sri Lanka, and India, where Rushdie was born.

The then-Supreme Leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, went so far as to issue a fatwa against Rushdie, ordering Muslims to kill him (if they could find him).

U.S. President George H.W. Bush said, "However offensive that book may be, inciting murder and offering rewards for its perpetration are deeply offensive to the norms of civilized behavior."

Protests soon spread to the U.S. as well. "He doesn't have the right to slander and tell lies, and that's what we are against," said one demonstrator.

Over time, however, Rushdie became a quiet but dedicated hero, a symbol of free speech, even as he lived his life on the run.

Rushdie did re-enter society, living quite freely in New York, where "Sunday Morning" correspondent Martha Teichner talked with him back in 2002. "I'm just getting back to the ordinary business of being a writer," he explained.

While Rushdie understood the power of his plight, and fought for authors' rights, he seemed to hope his legacy would be more than just that one novel, one he never even considered to be his best. "To be famous for the wrong thing is a terrible fate," he said, "I've now spent a dozen years of my life trying to climb out from under that."

From 2002: Salman Rushdie on life after fatwa 09:27

The suspect in Friday's attack, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, from Fairview, N.J., pleaded not guilty to attempted second degree murder. His next court appearance is on Friday.

As for Muslim Americans, many condemned the attack, but a few extremist groups praised it, seeing it as vindication that the fatwa had finally been carried out, and warned that attacks on those who oppose the Islamic Republic would continue.

For his fans and friends, the fact that Rushdie was attacked in such a quiet place dedicated to the art of writing and free thought is certainly reason for pause.

Henry Reese said, "If you're a writer, you should continue to write, and you should write bravely, and truthfully."

"Which is exactly what he did," said Cowan.

"Yes. Art lives on, but writers do not. And it's our job to defend them."

As Salman Rushdie himself once queried, "Just what is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist."

Story produced by Robert Marston. Editor: Karen Brenner. 

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