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What’s behind the astonishing rise of an anti-Islam movement in Germany?

Supporters of the Pegida movement protest at another of their weekly gatherings on December 15, 2014 in Dresden, Germany. Pegida is an acronym for 'Patriotische Europaeer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes,' which translates to 'Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamification of the West.' (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Carrying German flags and banners saying "We're against religious fanaticism," an increasing number of German protesters, known as the Pegida movement, have taken to the streets in recent weeks to voice their concerns about an influx of Muslim immigrants.

On Monday, 15,000 came to the eastern German city of Dresden to march through the historic city center. Anti-Islam protesters have been chanting "We are the people!" – a slogan that was used in 1989 when eastern Germans rallied to bring down the communist regime. The movement's members have repeatedly emphasized that they are not extremists, but civil rights groups are accusing them of being "pinstriped Nazis."

In a country that is still haunted by World War II, the protests have come as a shock to many politicians and left-leaning activists. In an interview on Monday, Germany's justice minister Heiko Maas called the movement "a shame for Germany" and warned of a new "level of escalation of agitation against immigrants and refugees." About 6,500 human rights campaigners joined two separate counter-demonstrations on Monday that were organized in opposition to the anti-foreigner movement.

The protests have revealed a deep divide between many citizens and their political elite. Half of Germany sympathizes with the anti-Islam protesters, according to a ZEIT ONLINE-YouGov poll that was released on Monday.

Supporters can be found all over the country, but protests in western Germany have so far failed to attract large numbers of supporters. In eastern Germany, however, the rallies against immigrants have quickly gained steam – despite the fact that only few foreigners currently live there.

In the center of the protests – a region called Saxony – only 2.5 percent of all inhabitants do not have German citizenship. Many western German regions, however, have a much higher foreigner ratio of about 10 percent.

"Many eastern Germans know only few or no foreigners; they are scared because they have no idea what to expect from the influx of refugees," political scientist Werner Patzelt told The Washington Post.

The differences have historical origins, as well: Most foreigners in the west are from Turkey and came to Germany in the 1960s under a guest worker arrangement – at that time, east and west Germany were already split.

Both in the east and in the west, some citizens fear that immigrants might exploit the relatively generous German welfare system. The Guardian quoted a middle-aged female protester, who said at Monday's rally in Dresden that she was shocked to see that “asylum seekers in Germany have expensive mobile phones, while I cannot afford such luxury”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who grew up in eastern Germany herself – voiced harsh criticism of the popular anti-Islamic movement, saying there was "no space for hate campaigns and slander." She warned protesters that they were being "exploited" by the organizers of the demonstrations.

Others have been more cautious. "The people who have taken to the streets are a minority, but they have found support among a majority of Germans," political scientist Patzelt said. Politicians, he says, are to be blamed for the surge of xenophobia. In 2013 and 2014, more asylum claims were submitted in Germany than in any other country – but the nation lacks a vision how to integrate refugees and immigrants into German society, according to Patzelt.

Last week, the conservative party Christian Social Union (CSU) proposed a law that would have forced foreigners to speak German at home. The idea was widely mocked by members of other parties and CSU quickly dropped it. Other proposals have been equally unsuccessful and encouraged the recent protests.

Although Pegida movement campaigners say they want to protest peacefully, some of their supporters are considered to be right-wing extremists.

German authorities estimate that there are about 10,000 right-wingers all over the country who are prone to use violence, and officials have observed a recent rise in politically motivated attacks against foreigners and other minorities.

So when Australian Twitter users created the hashtag #Illridewithyou to show solidarity with Australian Muslims on Monday, some German users felt the need to export the idea to their country.

On Dec. 22, both Pegida supporters and human rights groups will take to German streets again. The number of outspoken Pegida supporters might have risen further by then – but so will the number of Germans who protest in support of foreigners, human rights activists hope.