Author Salman Rushdie, who spent years in hiding and under police protection after Iranian officials called for his execution, was attacked and stabbed in the neck on Friday while performing in Chautauqua, near Lake Erie in western New York, state police said.

The attack, which rocked the literary world, happened around 11 a.m., shortly after Mr Rushdie, 75, took the stage for a talk at the Chautauqua Institution, a community that offers arts programs and literature during the summer.

Mr Rushdie was airlifted to a local hospital, state police said in a statement. His condition is not yet known. His agent, Andrew Wylie, said in an email on Friday afternoon that Mr Rushdie was undergoing surgery.

It is not known what motivated the attacker.

Linda Abrams of the Buffalo area, who was seated in the front row, said the attacker continued to try to attack Mr Rushdie even after he was subdued. “It took about five men to pull him away and he was still stabbing,” she said. “He was just furious, furious. Like intensely loud and just fast.

Rita Landman, an endocrinologist who was in the audience, said Mr Rushdie had several stab wounds, including one to the right side of his neck, and there was a pool of blood under his body. But she said he appeared to be alive. “People were like, ‘He’s got a pulse, he’s got a pulse, he’s got a pulse,'” Ms Landman said.

State police said the interviewer at the event also “sustained a minor head injury,” but did not identify him. The Chautauqua institution said on Twitter that they ask “your prayers for Salman Rushdie and Henry Reese”. Mr. Reese, the morning discussion moderator, co-founded a program for exiled writers.

Credit…Joshua Goodman/Associated Press

Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, which promotes free speech, said “we can think of no comparable incident of public attack on a literary writer on American soil.”

“A few hours before the attack on Friday morning, Salman had emailed me to help place Ukrainian writers who needed safe haven from the grave perils they face,” she said. said in a statement. “Salman Rushdie was targeted for his lyrics for decades but never flinched or wavered.”

Mr Rushdie spent around 10 years under police protection, living in hiding after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader after the 1979 Iranian revolution, called for his execution in 1989 because his novel “The Satanic Verses” was considered offensive to Islam. The book was banned in India, where it was born, and it was banned from the country for over a decade.

Mr. Rushdie had just taken the stage to give the morning lecture at the 4,000-seat amphitheater at the Chautauqua Institution, a gated community that offers arts and literary programs each summer, when he came under attack, said witnesses.

He was there for a discussion about the United States as a haven for exiled writers and other artists at risk of persecution. The conversation was to be moderated by Mr. Reese, the co-founder of a Pittsburgh nonprofit, City of Asylum, which is a residency program for exiled writers.

Mr Rushdie had just sat down and was being introduced when the assailant rushed onto the scene and assaulted him.

“I could just see his fists hitting Salman,” said witness Bill Vasu, 72.

A number of people rushed to Mr Rushdie’s aid, Mr Vasu said, and quickly pinned the assailant to the ground.

A soldier assigned to the event took the assailant into custody, police said.

Governor Kathy Hochul of New York said on Twitter that she had asked state police to assist in the investigation and that “our thoughts are with Salman and his loved ones following this horrific event.”

Several witnesses said the attacker was able to reach Mr Rushdie easily, running onto the stage and approaching him from behind. “There was only one attacker,” said Elisabeth Healey, 75, who was in the audience. “He was dressed in black. He was wearing a loose black garment. He ran towards him with lightning speed.

“It was very scary and it left a hole in my stomach,” said Jane Bulette, 68, who has been coming for more than a decade. “How could they not block the stairs leading to the stage?”

“There was a huge breach of security,” said Ms Bulette’s husband, John, 85, who witnessed the attack. “That someone could get that close without any intervention was scary.”

Kyle Doershuk, 20, was working as an usher at the amphitheater at the time of the attack. He said he was about 15 feet from the assailant when he began rushing to the scene with a knife, after dropping a backpack. By the time Mr. Doershuk realized something was wrong, the attack had begun.

Mr. Doershuk said security at the facility was lax and there did not appear to be any additional measures in place for Mr. Rushdie’s visit. “It’s very open, it’s very accessible, it’s a very relaxed environment,” he said. “In my opinion, something like this was just waiting to happen.”

Another eyewitness, Anita Ayerbe, 57, said she saw the attacker on the grounds of the Institution on Thursday afternoon near the amphitheater, and was able to easily access the scene.

“The amphitheater is an easy target,” Ms Ayerbe said. “There was no obvious security at the site and it ran smoothly. The cops weren’t the first on the scene.

“The Satanic Verses” were considered blasphemous by some Muslims because they romanticized part of the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989 ordering Muslims to kill Mr Rushdie.

The Iranian government publicly backed the fatwa for 10 years, until at least 1998 when Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said Iran no longer supported the killing. But the fatwa remains in place, with a bounty from an Iranian religious foundation of around $3.3 million in 2012.

Mr. Rushdie published a memoir, “Joseph Anton,” on the fatwa. The title comes from the pseudonym he used in hiding, taken from the first names of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.

In recent years, Mr. Rushdie has had a more public life in New York. In 2019, he spoke in a private club in Manhattan to promote his novel “Quixote”. Security at the event was released and Mr Rushdie mingled freely with guests and later dined with club members.

In an interview last year, Mr Rushdie was laid back and laid back as he discussed literature from his Manhattan home, adopting the air of someone who had long been reintegrated into society and reveled in being a city man. Asked about the long-standing call for his death, he replied simply, “Oh, I have to live my life.”

jay root reported from Chautauqua, NY, David Gelles of Putnam Valley, NY, and Elizabeth Harris from New York. Edmond Lee and Julia Jacobs contributed report.