It was the moment towards the end of the debate when millions watching on television witnessed Boris Johnson squirming in his seat. Abdullah Patel, 25, his face filling a giant BBC screen, announced: “I am an imam of a mosque and I see first hand the everyday impact of Islamophobic rhetoric on my community.
“Do the panel agree that words have consequences?”
The question was clearly aimed at the front-runner in the race to become the next Conservative Party leader and prime minister.
Mr Johnson had previously compared veiled Muslim women to “letter boxes” and here he was on television – and in a live debate – having to respond to an allegation of Islamophobia.
“I am sorry for the offence they have caused,” stuttered Mr Johnson, explaining that in 30 years of journalism he had written articles that very occasionally “people have taken those words out of my articles and escalated them”.
The imam’s question prompted Sajid Javid, himself a Muslim, albeit non-practising, to call on his leadership rivals to support an official inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. “Do you all agree, guys? Shall we have an external investigation into the Conservative Party on Islamophobia?” said the Home Secretary.
Put on the spot, the other four contenders consented. “Excellent. They agree,” said Mr Javid.
The bespectacled imam, ensconced in the BBC’s Bristol studio, must have been delighted with his night’s work. The only concrete issue resolved in an hour’s chaotic debate was that the Conservative Party’s next leader, whoever that may be, was committed to a root and branch inquiry into alleged Islamophobia within the party.
What the leadership rivals didn’t know – and nor, seemingly, did the BBC – was that Mr Patel, imam at the Masjid E Umar mosque in Gloucester and deputy head of the city’s al-Ashraf Primary School, would have questions of his own to answer over a series of offensive posts on social media.
Mr Patel, one of Britain’s youngest imams, had compared Jews gassed in Auschwitz to the Israeli treatment of Palestinians in Gaza; suggested Israel be relocated to the centre of the US; and issued a warning to women sexually assaulted by men that “it takes two to tango”.
Mr Patel was also full of praise for Jeremy Corbyn, insisting that “every political figure on the Zionist’s [sic] payroll is scaring the world about” the Labour leader.
Mr Patel also expressed support on Twitter for the controversial campaign group CAGE, whose research director, Asim Qureshi, once described Mohammed Emwazi, the man believed to have been the Isil killer “Jihadi John”, as a “beautiful young man”. In May, Mr Patel tweeted that Qureshi was “a person I consider my elder/teacher”.
How Mr Patel ended up on the BBC is now under heavy scrutiny.
Two weeks ago, the corporation had asked members of the public to submit questions for the panel and in the following days Mr Patel emailed his cleverly worded teaser.
It is understood that at the end of last week, a BBC researcher contacted Mr Patel to thank him for the question and to tell him it was likely to be used during the debate. The BBC then asked Mr Patel if he was available to appear on Tuesday night’s live programme, subject to background checks.
Mr Patel was delighted but must have realised that his social media posts on Twitter were a problem.
At some point over the weekend, he deactivated his Twitter account. By the time the BBC got around to vetting the imam, all trace of his presence on Twitter, along with the accounts, had vanished. Besides a short conversation with Mr Patel, no other checks were done. A BBC source said: “We received thousands of questions and the best questions were looked at. We selected them on weight of interest – how many questions we had received on that subject – Brexit and climate change came up a lot, for example.
“The questions were also chosen on the issues that the editorial team thought most likely to be in the in-tray of the new prime minister.”
By Friday, according to the source, the number of questioners had been whittled down to “12 to 16 people” and “by Monday we had locked down the final people”. Only then did the BBC get around to making its checks – too late to spot Mr Patel, who had vanished from the internet. By Tuesday night – and after the debate – he was back on, and the offensive posts were spotted by journalists.
Rob Burley, the BBC’s head of live political programming, was trying to explain what had gone wrong.
“For those wondering how, given his tweets, Abdullah Patel made it on to the debate last night. The answer: his Twitter account had been deactivated, his tweets could not be read and his account did not exist when searched for,” Mr Burley stated on Twitter.
“It was after the show that Mr Patel reactivated his account, revealing his tweets. We wouldn’t have put him on the programme if these were public before broadcast but they were not. We also carried out a number of other routine checks which didn’t uncover anything untoward.”
But it didn’t stop there. Nicky Campbell, one of the BBC’s main anchors on peak morning national radio, had to issue his own apology after he interviewed Mr Patel on the Radio 5 Live breakfast show the following morning.
Later in the same show he said on air: “I would like to apologise. We had the imam from the BBC Tory leadership debate on our programme this morning. His social media comments have been extremely disturbing. We should have checked. We didn’t. I’m sorry.”
The fallout continued with the fee-paying al-Ashraf Primary School suspending its deputy head teacher “with immediate effect”, pending an inquiry.
Mr Patel’s mosque also acted and suspended the imam. “We are fully aware of allegations made against our imam, Abdullah Patel, regarding the contents of historic tweets,” executive members of the Masjid E Umar mosque said.
“We have decided to act immediately and have chosen to give him some time away to allow us the opportunity to conduct a detailed investigation.”
Gloucestershire County Council said Mr Patel’s role as a contact for school visits to mosques in the county had also been at least temporarily ended.
Mr Patel briefly emerged on Wednesday morning to defend himself. “Those comments were made four or five years ago,” he told his local BBC radio station in Gloucestershire. “I would also like to clarify the criticism was about Israel and not a criticism of the Jewish community. The Jewish community and I, especially within Gloucestershire, we work very closely together.”
Mr Patel went to ground by the afternoon, with a friend suggesting he was being scapegoated. “The imam did a good debate and asked a good question. It was a very good political question,” said the friend, adding ominously: “The powers that remain in the dark have tracked and looked at his history and assumed the worst.
“They’ve looked at his Twitter and said, ‘look, this guy is a borderline anti-Semitic’ and all sorts of other stuff.
“Back then he was a young man in a different way and he may have said things but you ask him now and he’ll say ‘that was complete rubbish’.”
Sajid Javid, though incensed, insisted that the investigation into Islamophobia should continue.
“The imam from the BBC debate should practise what he preaches,” he said. “Words do indeed have consequences.
“That applies to him as much as it does for leaders in public life. All of us have a duty to be vigilant for anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim prejudice. Unlike the Labour leadership, which is itself part of the problem, my party takes that duty seriously.”