AAt 10:45 a.m. Friday, Michael Hill, the president of the Chautauqua facility, sat four rows from the stage as Salman Rushdie was introduced as one of the keynote speakers for the cultural center’s summer program.
It should have been a joyous occasion for the over 1,000 people in the room, and for Hill personally. Rushdie had only spoken to the institution once before, and as the event began, Hill reflected on how the novelist’s struggles and beliefs mirrored those of Chautauqua.
“Mr Rushdie is a symbol of freedom of speech and expression, which is exactly what we do,” Hill told the Guardian in an interview. “We bring people together across ideologies and divisions to try [to] spread understanding and make the world a better place.
But two minutes later, at 10:47 a.m., Hill said he witnessed the complete antithesis of everything the institution has stood for since its founding 148 years ago. A man rushed onto the stage and stabbed Rushdie multiple times in the neck and abdomen.
The attack had left Hill deeply shaken, he said, speaking 24 hours after it unfolded.
“For me personally, I can’t ignore what happened,” Hill said. “We watched an attack in front of us, up close, on a scene that feels like a second home to me, and it’s deeply traumatic.”
The sense of shock and dismay expressed by Hill ricocheted off this small western New York town and its surrounding countryside. The institution is in a heavily rural area teeming with cornfields, Amish farms, and 30 vineyards serving New York’s booming wine industry.
While agricultural produce is one of the region’s staples, the other is comedy – Lucille Ball was born nearby and the National Comedy Center is located in the nearest major city, Jamestown.
Central to the efforts of Chautauqua Institution is the aspiration to establish interfaith ties. Its roots in the 19th century were a Methodist training camp for Sunday School teachers, but in recent decades it has expanded its ambitions to tackle some of the toughest religious and communal conflicts on the planet. .
“We welcome people of all faiths and none,” Hill said.
There is a strong Christian and Jewish presence in the community, and a growing emphasis on reaching out to Muslims. The summer season includes a show on “Islam 101” and regular dialogues trying to unite Jews and Muslims.
Next week’s schedule includes an interfaith conference titled “Being the Change – A Leap of Faith.” It features the founders of a network of Muslim and Jewish women, Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom.
Against this tradition, Friday’s attack came as a violation. “It was primarily an attack on Mr. Rushdie, which we continue to pray for,” Hill said. “But it was also an attack on the very foundation of who we are and what we stand for. At bottom, for us, it was an attempt to silence.
Immediately after the attack, questions were raised about security at the event. Could more have been done to protect Rushdie?
Hill declined to address specific security concerns, such as whether there should have been walk-through metal detectors – or staff with metal detecting rods – set up to catch the knife. used by the attacker. He stressed that there had been extensive planning with state and local authorities before the start of the summer season and that “we have put in place what we believe is appropriate security for the event”.
Did he have any regrets?
He said, “It’s natural for us to ask, ‘Could we have done something different?’ The reality is that a 24-year-old had committed to doing violence to an individual, and he found a way to make it happen. I regret.”
A review is currently underway for the security of all upcoming events. That includes Monday’s talk from Jamie Raskin, the Democratic congressman from Maryland who is a key figure on the US House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.
Raskin will speak in a series of interviews the institution calls “new profiles of courage.” He will address the political challenges of January 6 but also the courage he had to harness as the father of Tommy Raskin, who committed suicide in December 2020, aged 25.
Hill said the institution celebrates people who have stood up for what is right despite great adversity, a theme made all the more urgent in the wake of Friday’s attack. “This is how Mr. Rushdie has spent his whole life, and we hope he will continue to do so,” he added.
The institution of Chautauqua now finds itself grappling with exactly the conundrum that has hung over Rushdie since the fatwa against his life was issued in 1989 – how do you stay true to your values and live your best life, in the face of danger constant ? “We ask the same horrible question,” Hill said.
He continued: “Mr. Rushdie gives us the answer. He tells us: you can be terrified if you allow yourself to hide from terror.
The way to respond to the violence unleashed on Rushdie and his community, Hill said, was to do the opposite — to strengthen the bridge-building mission.
He said: “I have deep sadness for what happened here, and that is precisely why we need to move forward. Otherwise, they win.