The former director of the centre for equal rights has caused a row in progressive Flanders by appearing to excuse discrimination against LGBT residents of the Brussels commune of Molenbeek.
Molenbeek has come in for a great deal of criticism, at least since the terror attacks in Paris in November 2015, after it was revealed that much of the organisation and planning took place there, leading to the commune being described as “the jihad capital of Europe”. The commune has a large immigrant population and high levels of poverty and unemployment.
Leman was reacting to a post on Twitter by VRT journalist Riadh Bahri, in which he complained about the fly-tipping of rubbish in Molenbeek, where he has lived for five years.
He goes on: “And then there’s the fact that my boyfriend and I let go of each other’s hand as soon as we cross the canal from Brussels-City heading “home”. Niels – my boyfriend – still finds that abnormal. It’s taken me ten years to consider it normal.”
Bahri then threatens to leave Molenbeek if things have not improved by 2020. “My heart lies in Molenbeek. Sometimes you just have to shout really loud to be heard.”
Then, in an interview in De Standaard, the former director of the federal agency for equal rights and the fight against racism, now known as Unia, responded to Bahri’s plea. Johan Leman is a professor of intercultural studies at the university of Leuven, as well as chair of the regional centre for integration in Molenbeek.
“I’d rather that a certain kind of progressive Fleming not come to Molenbeek,” he told the paper. “If you buy a house here, you can’t expect to have only the good side, namely cheap house prices. You have to take the bad with the good. We would do better to keep our own middle class here. They know that it’s maybe better as a gay couple not to walk hand in hand on the street.”
“There are places where you can, and places where it’s more problematic. I’m not excusing that. But try to understand Molenbeek, to get a feeling for and to understand what’s possible. And try to grow and extend those places where it is possible.”
Brussels politician Els Ampe (Open VLD) responded on Twitter: “According to [Leman], it’s people who complain about the rubbish who are the problem. He seems to have no problem with gays not being able to walk hand in hand. I’ve had enough of such nonsense. The people of Brussels deserve light, not darkness!”
Former Brussels minister Bruno De Lille (Groen), himself gay, came to Leman’s defence. “People are reading the interview with Johan Leman as if he thinks today’s reality is what is needed. But that’s not what he’s saying. And that’s not how he or Foyer behaves. I’m reading someone who is described both the reality and how he would like to see things evolve.”