A leading Islamic scholar in Pakistan who appeared to slur his words on live TV has become the subject of ridicule on social media.
When it comes to Islamic clerics in Pakistan, few are more senior than Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi. His opinion on Islamic scripture is sought by the nation’s lawmakers.
But this is a country where it is illegal for Muslims to drink alcohol, so it’s unsurprising that his apparently intoxicated appearance on a late night talk show has caused controversy.
He made a seemingly slurred speech criticizing the moral conduct of Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. As he spoke, one of the TV hosts visibly tried to hide his amusement.
The accusation that he was “drunk” came the next day, on social media. In Pakistan, where YouTube is officially banned, footage of the TV show soon appeared on Dailymotion, another video sharing website.
One clip alone has been viewed more than 290,000 times, and been shared more than 3,500 times on Facebook. There was outrage on social media.
“Drunk mullah on live TV and he gets away with it. The society is a joke,” said one tweet. Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaidwrote: “What an interesting clip feat Maulana Ashrafi worth watching 2 understand #maulvis in #pakistan double standards.”
But there are signs the social media criticism of Ashrafi may have been orchestrated. Several Twitter users commenting on the video identified themselves as supporters of Imran Khan’s political party, the PTI, and others said they were members of the PAT, led by Sufi cleric Tahir ul-Qadri’s.
BBC Trending spoke to Dr Awab Alvi who is part of the PTI party’s social media team.
He admitted the party had made a deliberate social media effort to criticise Ashrafi. “The cleric used his mixed political and Islamic agenda to defame Imran Khan’s character,” he says, “he picked a raw nerve and we rubbed it in.”
But was Ashrafi really drunk? In an interview with BBC Trending, he denied having consumed alcohol and instead said he had been chewing paan, a traditional mixture of tobacco leaves.
He says he is being deliberately targeted because the PUC, a body of religious scholars that he chairs, opposes recent street protests by Khan and Qadri’s parties.
“I see political and religious propaganda behind the social media uproar,” he says. The incident continues to trend on social media, with internet memes showing paan-flavoured alcohol and film posters mocking his appearance.