Words matter. Especially when they are uttered by the prime minister.
Two weeks ago David Cameron told the House of Commons that Suliman Gani, an Imam from Tooting in south London, was a supporter of Islamic State (IS), the most notorious terror group in the world.
On Saturday morning Defence Secretary Michael Fallon repeated the claim that Mr Gani supported Islamic state - or Daesh, as Mr Fallon called it.
This same claim has been made by the BBC TV presenter Andrew Neil.
Cameron’s remarks were made as part of a campaign to damage the reputation of the Labour candidate for mayor of London Sadiq Khan by claiming he has links with Muslim "extremists" - and therefore boost the mayoral chances of Tory MP Zac Goldsmith.
These tactics failed miserably. Mr Goldsmith’s rival got more votes than any other British politician in history.
As a result of Mr Cameron’s remarks in parliament, however, Mr Gani is now living a life of fear.
On Sunday night the Imam told me that he was now being targeted by thugs, and was afraid to go out into the streets with his family.
He revealed how on Saturday night abuse was shouted at him as he went to buy a meal in a nearby restaurant, the Grill Shack on London Road in Thornton Heath, South London.
Mr Gani told me: “I got out of the car and walked towards the shop. As I did so, I heard the words: ‘Terrorist. Terrorist.’ The words came from two men seated in a car parked by the side of the road.
“I did not turn and look at them. I tried to ignore them and walked straight on into the shop. I just avoided any confrontation.”
Mr Gani told me that he had never been targeted or abused in this way before. Saturday night’s verbal assault came on the same day that he was named on national radio by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon as a Daesh supporter.
It is highly unlikely to be a coincidence that he has been targeted after coming under such high-profile attacks – and Gani, who cuts a distinctive figure in long robes and a beard, now lives in fear: “People think that there must be something in it for the prime minister to say such a thing. I sense people looking at me in a certain way. You can notice the difference.”
Mr Gani told me that he did not go out with his family - he has four daughters and two sons, the youngest of whom is three - yesterday, as he would normally have done on a Sunday, for fear of exposing them to “trauma”.
He said: “I was concerned if someone does something in front of the children. I did not want them to get upset.”
However, Gani added that he was heartened by “support from those that know me. I have already started to get letters of support. More and more people are angry and upset at what happened.”
He said that it came as an unpleasant surprise when Michael Fallon made his comments on the BBC Today programme.
“It reinforced what the prime minister had said and Mr Fallon also used the word Daesh, which David Cameron had not done.
“It is unbelievable. A person is guilty before being given a chance to prove his innocence.”
Mr Gani completely denies that he has ever supported Daesh. Indeed, he points out that he is a strong campaigner against the terror group.
Downing Street spokesmen have refused to retract David Cameron’s claim that Gani is an “IS supporter” despite being given a number of opportunities to do so. When I spoke to Downing Street early last week, a spokesman insisted: “The prime minister has said what he had said.”
Pressurised to provide evidence that Mr Gani backed IS, he pointed me to remarks made at a “Quiz-a-Muslim” panel of speakers in Bedford last November. A recording of this event exists on YouTube, and when I checked it I found that Mr Gani said nothing at all that could be construed as offering support to Daesh.
Asked by one questioner whether there was a conflict between British and western values he replied: “We respect, tolerate, live in a society which is multicultural, but wherever we are living, it does not matter in which part of the world, our role model will always remain the Prophet Mohammed.”
The claim that Mr Gani was a supporter of Islamic State was first made by the television presenter Andrew Neil during the BBC London mayoral debate on Monday 18 April. The BBC apologised four days later, following complaints from Mr Gani.
However, the apology was made through Twitter, rather than a full studio apology, and received little attention.
It can also be found on the BBC Corrections and Clarifications website and and it reads as follows: “On the BBC’s London Mayoral Debate programme on Monday night, our presenter Andrew Neil described Suliman Gani as being a supporter of Islamic State, rather than a supporter of an Islamic state as he intended. We apologise to Mr Gani for this error and any distress caused.”
Despite the BBC apology, Downing Street has failed to follow suit. In the wake of his remarks on Saturday, Michael Fallon has also offered a mealy mouthed “clarification” rather than a full apology and retraction.
Approached by the London radio station LBC, a spokesman for Michael Fallon was quoted as saying: “He was unaware of the clarification the BBC had issued on Mr Neil’s words. He is happy to put the record straight on that.”
Mr Gani is now suffering verbal abuse and afraid to go out of his house with his family – all because of a lie told by the British prime minister and amplified by his secretary of state for defence.
It is now nearly three weeks since David Cameron told parliament that Mr Gani was an IS supporter. Since then neither the prime minister nor his advisers have been able to produce a scintilla of evidence supporting the claim.
Strict parliamentary rules forbid uttering false statements to parliament. In particular paragraph 1.2.c of the Ministerial Code states that: “It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation.”
David Cameron understands this better than anyone else, since he wrote the introduction to this ministerial code. It is already shocking that almost three weeks have passed without any correction being made. Mr Cameron surely has a moral duty to put the record straight at once. A prime minister who lies about a British citizen and exposes him and his family to hatred and fear is not fit to remain in office.
- Peter Oborne was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He recently resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class; The Rise of Political Lying;and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Suliman Gani is shown speaking to ITV News about David Cameron's comments on his political views (YouTube)