School suspends imam who appeared on BBC Tory leadership debate

Jim Waterson and Haroon Siddique

An imam who asked a question on the BBC’s Tory leadership debate has been suspended by the school he works for after it emerged he had previously made “extremely disturbing” comments on social media.

Al-Ashraf primary school in Gloucester said it was suspending its deputy head, Abdullah Patel, who appeared on Tuesday night’s BBC One programme, until an investigation could be carried out. It stressed that it did not share the views attributed to him.

As it emerged that another questioner on the programme worked for the Labour party, Conservative supporters of Boris Johnson rushed to criticise the BBC’s handling of the debate, with the issue overshadowing the third round of voting in the Tory leadership contest.

In one of the most talked-about moments in the debate, Patel questioned the five candidates to be the next prime minister about the impact of politicians’ words on Islamophobia in the UK – a nod to Boris Johnson’s comments about women who wear the burqa resembling “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”.

One of the leadership candidates, Sajid Javid, then prompted all his rivals to commit to commissioning an independent investigation into Islamophobia in the Conservative party should they win the contest.

Patel later said he had asked the question because of “numerous reports of blatant racism against members of my community”, saying he “wanted the candidates to admit that they’ve played a role in peddling this hate, and that things would change”.

Abdullah Patel appearing during the TV debate. Photograph: BBC/PA

However, it later emerged that Patel had previously tweeted: “Every political figure on the Zionist’s payroll is scaring the world about Corbyn. They don’t like him. He seems best suited to tackle them!”

He also tweeted a map of the US, suggesting Israel should be moved from the Middle East to North America as a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

In another tweet, he said women needed “to be smarter” to avoid assault, saying: “Don’t be alone with a man!”

Yakub Patel, the chair of Al-Madani Educational Trust, which runs Al-Ashraf primary school, said on Wednesday: “Following some of the comments attributed to Mr Patel in the media this morning, the trust has decided to suspend him from all school duties with immediate effect until a full investigation is carried out.”

There was further embarrassment for the BBC after it emerged that another of the questioners on the debate had worked for the Labour party. Aman Thakar stood as a council candidate for the party in 2018 and was also involved in the running of the party’s investigation into antisemitism.

On Tuesday’s programme, Thakar said that whoever became prime minister by virtue of winning the Conservative leadership election would have “no mandate” from the general public, asking the candidates: “When will you do the right thing and call a general election?”

A BBC statement said Abdullah Patel seemed to have deactivated and then reactivated his Twitter account and if the corporation had known of the views he had expressed he would not have been invited on to the programme.

A BBC spokesperson said: “We carried out background research into the online and social media profiles of all our questioners for last night’s debate. Following the debate, one individual reactivated a public Twitter account he had previously deactivated, whose tweets were not visible during our research period. Had we been aware of the views he expressed there he would not have been selected.”

The corporation confirmed that it had known Thakar worked for Labour before putting him on the programme.

The BBC Radio 5 Live host Nicky Campbell apologised for having Patel on his programme on Wednesday morning. He said: “His social media comments have been extremely disturbing. We should have checked. We didn’t. I’m sorry.”

Patel, who had asked the leadership candidates to acknowledge that “words have consequences”, told BBC Gloucester he did not remember all of his tweets, adding: “I have not criticised the Jewish community … criticism of Israel is not the same as criticism of Jews.”​

The often noisy and chaotic BBC debate was the first to feature Johnson, who had refused to take part in Sunday night’s programme on Channel 4. Rather than have a studio audience, questioners from around the UK appeared on a large screen to question the candidates from a regional television studio. With five candidates attempting to debate against each other and no moderating influence from an audience, they often ended up speaking over each other.