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Muslim paranoia: Enemies made us impotent!

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Steyn tries to get a chuckle out of the following story. As you’ll see, it turns out remarkably forced, ignorant and culturally insensitive.

“Last month mass hysteria apparently swept the capital city, Khartoum, after reports that foreigners were shaking hands with Sudanese men and causing their penises to disappear. One victim, a fabric merchant, told his story to the London Arabic newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi. A man from West Africa came into the shop and ‘shook the store owner’s hand powerfully until the owner felt his penis melt into his body.'”

Steyn’s interest seems to be primarily to lampoon Islamic ignorance, but the report from Khartoum is a classic description of a poignant ‘culture-bound syndrome’ called koro. First described among the Malay and southern Chinese (where it is known as suk-yeong), it is, according to psychiatrist Heinz Lehmann (1911-99) in his time-honored chapter on ‘Unusual Psychiatric Disorders’ in Kaplan and Sadock’s authoritative Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry,

“an acute anxiety reaction characterized by the male patient’s desperate fear that his penis is shrinking and may disappear into his abdomen. Because this is a fairly widespread belief in those cultures in which the koro syndrome is observed, the patient’s family or friends who rush him to the doctor are usually very disturbe about this danger. Almost invariably the affected person has secured a strong physical hold on his penis, sometimes by tying a ribbon around it or by clamping it into a wooden box.”

It has occasionally been described among Western patients as well. Lehmann, who considered koro to be a “unique example of a depersonalization syndrome affecting the integrity of the body-image,” described an epidemic-like mass outbreak of koro in Thailand in his chapter, although noting that cases are usually sporadic and isolated. Steyn’s description notes that the panic in Sudan has been facilitated by text messaging and cell phone communication, and one might expect culture-bound syndromes to be more readily transmitted in a society where indigenous beliefs coexist with modern mass communications.

As someone who transitioned from cross-cultural anthropology to clinical psychiatry, I was fascinated by the culture-specific psychiatric syndromes and did some of my early writing and teaching on them. FmH seems sometime to be an attempt to grapple with the remarkable barriers to communication across the gulfs between individual ‘cultures’ in an atomized society. Which makes me wonder — in lampooning Steyn’s ignorance, am I being ignorant and culturally insensitive about a culture-bound syndrome — American jingoist journalist arrogant xenophobia? We could call it the AJJAX syndrome for short. Does this poignant thought disorder deserve the same compassion due to the Sudanese men affected by koro? I certainly find it laughable… and scary.