During the decade, the county’s Muslim population grew by 179 percent from 7,878 adherents to 21,994, according to estimates from the survey of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. Islam is now the seventh-largest religion in the county, the survey found.
About one quarter of the county’s population is Catholic, making it the most popular religion despite the loss of 28,083 followers or 3.4 percent of its fellowship during the decade. The county had 801,850 Catholics in 2010, ahead of a religious group reported by the survey for the first time this year, a grouping of 148,930 nondenominational Christians which ranked second.
The growth of Islam here is unique among California’s largest counties, according to the report. Both as a percentage and overall number, San Diego County’s Muslim population increase was nearly double that of any of the state’s 10 largest counties, according to the survey.
Islamic Center of San Diego Imam Abdel Jalil Mezgouri attributed the growth of the county’s Muslim population to immigration, especially among Somali, Iraqi, Afghan and Bosnian refugees, and to an increase in births and Muslim conversions. He said the growth, which mirrors a national trend, has brought new challenges to the county’s Muslim community, but has also brought more understanding of Islam to the county as a whole.
“Of course, as we say, there is no gain without pain,” Mezgouri said. “The culture is becoming very, very diverse and also some of them have the challenge of adapting with the new place and the language, especially.”
Cabdriver Mohammed Abdi came to the U.S. from Kenya in 2005, following his brothers and other relatives who came earlier seeking economic opportunities. He said becoming an American Muslim was a challenge at first, as he struggled to attend Friday prayers regularly. To avoid missing out three weeks in a row, which is shunned by Islam, he would sneak out of work to attend mosque. He said being in America has ultimately strengthened his faith in Islam.
Aside from San Diego’s weather, which is attractive to immigrants from warmer climates, Mezgouri said San Diego County’s large refugee communities also lead to increased immigration. The federal government resettles refugees in areas where their family or friends live or where they have the best opportunity for a new life.
According to Horn of Africa, the San Diego-based African refugee assistance organization, San Diego has the second-largest East African refugee population in the country. The group’s economic development director, Hussein Nuur, said the refugee community organizations — many based in City Heights — help new arrivals settle.
Oumar Ba, 48, was seeking help from Horn of Africa on Friday after being laid off more than a year ago from his job installing fiberglass on ships for General Dynamics-NASSCO. Ba came to San Diego County in 2006 after fleeing violence in his home country of Mauritania in northwest Africa, where his uncle was killed during a civil war.
Mezgouri said the high unemployment rate has made integration difficult for recent immigrants. He said discrimination that intensified after the 9/11 attacks is also still a challenge, but the growth of the Muslim community and the interest in Islam that came with the attacks has given Muslims the chance to increase understanding of their religion.
“In general, San Diego County is a wonderful place, and it is diverse and people are open to that idea,” Mohebi said. “But there is also Islamophobia and hate crimes that have been recorded by our organization.”
The U.S. Religion Census seeks to count all of the houses of worship across the country and then surveys them every 10 years to determine how their congregations have changed. For some religions, including Islam, the report’s authors use a sample of responses to estimate populations.
Nationally, Islam grew by 1 million followers between 2000 and 2010, according to the census, again behind Mormonism, which saw an increase of 1.9 million adherents. Islam grew by 67 percent, while Mormonism grew by 46 percent.
University of Kentucky Islamic Studies professor Ihsan Bagby, who helped produce the report’s Muslim estimates, said the growth nationally is also attributed to immigration and, to a lesser extent, conversion.
Due to the increase in the number of mosques, Bagby said, Muslim immigrants, many of whom are refugees, are finding it easier to integrate into American society. Before, many Muslim immigrants would form a social group until the group was large enough to form a mosque.
“The sense of being an outsider and totally foreign is kind of alleviated somewhat, because their co-religious have gone through that process of becoming part of the American society,” Bagby said. “They see that it can be done, and it is something that a Muslim can embrace.”