Emilio Carlesimo meets with members of the local Islamic community after a speaker denounced the religion at a 9/11 memorial service.
After a speaker denounced Muslims at a 9/11 memorial service in Venice this year, City Council member Emilio Carlesimo said he agreed with the sentiments that Muslims were unapologetic for terrorism and that they were working to infiltrate Western governments. He called the speech “rousing.”
But Carlesimo has a different view today.
For the past two months, Carlesimo has met with a representative for the Council on American-Islamic Relations and a Port Charlotte imam to discuss the faith and Muslims in America.
The change in Carlesimo was evident this week when the keynote speaker at the controversial 9/11 event, Tom Trento, who heads the group The United West, returned to the area to speak to the Nokomis, Osprey, Venice Area Republican Club.
While others in the crowd of 60 leapt to their feet to applaud Trento after his talk, Carlesimo sat in his folding chair.
“When I heard him (on 9/11) he seemed on the fringe, but I gave him a little credibility,” Carlesimo said. “Now, I listen, but I don’t take him as seriously.”
Carlesimo, a retired firefighter from Detroit with an easy manner and loud laugh, said his journey began after he told a reporter that he agreed with some of Trento’s remarks at the 9/11 ceremony and added that he had never once heard a Muslim leader condemn anti-American violence.
The next day, he received a call from a Venice resident. Her name was Helen Sarvis, and she was livid.
“We can’t take a minority and beat them like that,” she said. “I just didn’t think it made any sense.”
It was the first time the former high school English and history teacher had ever called a city commissioner.
Sarvis said she told Carlesimo he should meet with Muslims before making assumptions about their religion.
Set up some meetings, Carlesimo responded.
“At first I agreed just to get her off of my back,” he said, laughing.
Within days, Carlesimo found himself sitting with Sarvis, Hassan Shibly with the Florida Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Imam Azhar Subedar of Port Charlotte. An imam is an Islamic worship leader.
The four sat down in Venice for a 90-minute meeting, where they discussed religion, spirituality, the harassment of peaceful Muslims and terrorism.
Shibly gave Carlesimo a folder full of articles that detailed local, national and international Muslim leaders condemning terrorist acts and violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists.
“Our enemy is ignorance, which leads to hate and even violence,” Shibly said. “But through our meetings, Emilio and I built a good respect. I think it opened up his eyes.”
Carlesimo said it was evident within minutes of meeting Shibly that he was not extreme, even though Trento had labeled Shibly specifically as a terrorist.
Subedar applauded Carlesimo for keeping an open mind.
“I really respect him for that,” Subedar said. “He’s a noble person, and I give him two big thumbs up.”
The first meeting went so well that the group had a second meeting and invited Gene Sweeney to attend.
Sweeney organized the 9/11 event at which Trento spoke, and also worked to bring a piece of the World Trade Center to Venice’s Patriot’s Park.
Subedar said Sweeney was also open to what he and Shibly had to say and even took them to go see the memorial Sweeney helped to create.
“It was amazing,” Subedar said of seeing the monument for the first time. “It was so beautiful, I told (Sweeney) I would love to be there at the next event because the Muslim community is a part of Venice and would want to help commemorate such a sacred day.”
Sarvis said she is glad the meetings were so positive. She hopes Trento’s talks will be a distant memory by next year.
She added that while she does not agree with all of Carlesimo’s policies, his openness in these meetings left an impression on her.
“I admire him,” she said. “I know we won’t agree on everything, but we can talk honestly without fear retribution. He’s honest, and he’s a commissioner who was concerned with how I felt.”