Nearly half the residents in the Buffalo Niagara region are considered "unclaimed" by a religious group -- a stunning change from just a decade ago, when the percentage of the population affiliated with a faith tradition was higher here than in any other metropolitan area in the country.
Catholicism, most mainline Protestant denominations, Judaism and some evangelical denominations in the Buffalo Niagara region experienced huge membership declines between 2000 and 2010, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, which last week released the results of the latest U.S. Religion Census.
The study also showed exponential growth of the local Muslim community, which is now estimated at 18,483 people in Erie and Niagara counties, up from about 5,400 a decade ago.
That makes Islam the second most-practiced world religion in Western New York, behind Christianity.
Judaism slipped to third, with a total of 8,084 adherents in Buffalo Niagara, down from an estimate of 20,150 in 2000.
The Buffalo Niagara region had a population loss of less than 3 percent -- about 34,000 people -- between 2000 and 2010. At the same time, membership in a religious tradition fell by 31 percent, or more than a quarter of a million people.
"That's a pretty big drop," noted Dale E. Jones, who conducted data analysis and mapping for the 2010 U.S. Religion Census.
The unclaimed category consists of 514,314 people and is now the single largest segment of the Buffalo Niagara population, when compared with the area's religious groups.
What’s behind the exponential growth of Western New York’s Muslim population? Note what MPACT local director, Dr. Khalid Qasi said in an interview for this article about the liberalization of US immigration policies:
The presence of Muslims grew by 67 percent nationwide, with estimates now pegged at 2.6 million, according to the census.
But in Buffalo Niagara, the percent increase for Muslims was a whopping 242 percent.
The 18,483 estimate appeared to be accurate, according to Dr. Khalid Qazi, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York.
Qazi has pegged the local Muslim population at 20,000 to 25,000 for the six counties of Western New York.
The census, which breaks down data by state, county and metro areas, cited an additional 3,000 Muslims living in Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties.
"In this context, I don't think it is really different from what my own personal estimates are," he said.
But Qazi said not all of the growth has occurred over the past decade. The 2000 census estimate of 5,400 was much too low, he said. The number then would have been closer to 10,000 Muslims.
Qazi attributed the growth to several factors, beginning with immigration changes dating back to the Lyndon Johnson administration that allowed immigrants from primarily Muslim countries to enter the United States.
More recently, physicians, engineers and scientists needed in the United States to fill professional posts where there is a shortage often are from Muslim backgrounds, Qazi said. And in Buffalo, the resettlement of refugees from Bosnia and Somalia has added to the local Muslim community, which also tends to have families with more children, he said.
"As much as we saw loss of population, it would be far higher if we did not see refugee resettlement," Qazi said.
But why do Muslims gravitate toward and stay in Buffalo?
"I think the community in Buffalo is a much more tolerant community, and people are willing to stay here," he said.
The area's low cost of living compared with larger cities also is a major factor, he said.
Of course, all is not sweetness and light in the Buffalo-Niagara Frontier. You may recall the US case against al Qaeda wannabe terrorists, the Buffalo Six. Then there was the spectacular honor killing beheading of the wife by Muzzammil Hassan, the owner of the alleged moderate Muslim Bridges TV channel. More recently we have the Jewish community’s discovery of extremist Syrian Imams in a disastrous synagogue-mosque twinning program of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding co-founded by Rabbi Marc Schneier uncovered by Dr. Charles Jacobs and Ilya Feoktistov of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, the “buffaloed in Buffalo” incident. In our coverage of the failure of the American Law for American Courts legislation, we also noted Hasan Shibly, Florida’s CAIR director, who hailed from the Buffalo Muslim community. He and his mother had been detained at the US-Canadian border because Homeland Security had information that they had consorted with terrorist financiers at a conference in Toronto. Then there is Buffalo’s burgeoning Somali Muslim population. The Buffalo News in an article in March 2012, “Monitoring of Muslims Continues“ noted that the New York Police Department (NYPD) Intelligence had a special interest in the Buffalo vicinity because of possible recruitment within the Somali community for al Shabaab, the Somalia al Qaeda affiliate. The NYPD also had monitored the website of the University of Buffalo Muslim Students Association chapter.
One footnote on this latest Buffalo News report on the U.S. Religious Census. The 2010 US religious Census had an estimate of 2.6 million Muslims in the US. That is less than two-fifths of the 7 million figure cited frequently by the mainstream press, promoted by Muslim Brotherhood front group the ISNA. A bit of taqiyya?
Watch this WGRS news video of the conflict over the opening inMay 2011 of the Jaffarya Mosque in Buffalo.