Dresden, Germany - A movement called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA) continues to grow in popularity, drawing thousands of people to a series of Monday evening marches in the city of Dresden.

On December 15, an estimated 15,000 people took part in PEGIDA's march, many came from all over Germany. One was Paul, a retired doctor from the capital Berlin, 200km away. He said it was important for him to march in order to show that PEGIDA is made up of ordinary people, not far-right ideologues. 

"I am not in principle against Muslims," Paul told Al Jazeera, asking to be identified only by his first name. "I say we don't want so many Muslims that our culture will be changed. We want to be Germans, we want to be Europeans, we don't want too many people to come here and try to get money from our social system."

Chancellor Angela Merkel has condemned the demonstrations, saying: "There is no place here for stirring up hatred and telling lies about people who have come to us from other countries." Justice Minister Heiko Maas said the demonstrations are "shameful for Germany", and several other politicians have referred to PEGIDA as "Nazis with pinstripes".

'Protecting West culture'

PEGIDA says it is against preachers of hate, no matter what religion they belong to, and against radicalism whether it is religious or politically motivated, according to its Facebook group, which has received more than 70,000 "likes".

The group is marching for "the right to preserve and protect our Christian-Jewish dominated West culture", and against parallelgesellschaft - a German term used to describe immigrant communities that maintain their cultural norms and don't integrate in local society.

The movement began two months ago with a small protest of 200 people in Dresden. Every Monday since, the number of demonstrators has increased; 7,500 on the first day of December, 10,000 a week later, and 15,000 a week after that.

Marching a few metres behind Paul was a protester who gave only one name Jorg, who is from Dresden. He held a sign that included three words - all crossed out with a red line: hate, violence, the Quran. He said Islam dictates hatred and violence, and endangers peace in German society.

Henrik, who came from Bremen, held a sign saying "No Sharia in Europe", because he said he does not want to see Christian traditions disappear. He said German politicians are wrong for suggesting that PEGIDA is an extreme right-wing movement. 

"I don't like these 'left' and 'right' titles," Henrik told Al Jazeera, also offering just one name. "I am a nationalist. My first interest is not the situation in Afghanistan or in Cuba. My main interest is the situation of the people in Germany... I am a patriot." 

Rise of the right

The public display of right-wing ideas at demonstrations has increased in the past few months, according to Gereon Flümann from the German Federal Agency for Civic Education. Flümann explained there are smaller but similar movements in other parts of Germany, such as the Hooligans Against Salafists in the city of Cologne.

"PEGIDA say they do not promote xenophobia," Flümann told Al Jazeera. "But if you look at the protests and how they make use of particular information, you see there might be xenophobia behind it."

The Dresden demonstrations have so far remained violence-free - unlike a Hooligans Against Salafists march in Cologne on October 26, which ended in a riot with police with protesters yelling "foreigners out".

PEGIDA marchers' main slogan is "We are the people!" - which was first used in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations against East Germany's government in the days leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

We all know from different surveys that the less diversity - less people with migration background - means more prejudices, more anti-attitudes towards migrants.

- Ralf Melzer, Friedrich Ebert Foundation

Several PEGIDA protesters in Dresden held up signs against Nazis, and one man marched with the rainbow-coloured flag of the lesbian-gay-bi-trans community that had the word PEGIDA written on it. He said he was warmly received by other protesters. In fact, PEGIDA's position paper clearly states they are for sexual self-determination.

Flümann said PEGIDA's popularity does not mean that right-wing radicalism in Germany is growing.

"The NPD has very low numbers of voters," he said, referring to the National Democratic Party of Germany, a far-right political party that is usually described as neo-Nazi. "So organised right-wing extremism is not on the rise. But I think some loose right-wing extremist attitudes have a very broad distribution in Germany, and that definitely is a problem that needs to be tackled." 

Increasing Muslim visibility

Muslims are the largest minority in Germany, making up about five percent of the country's 82 million population. Muslims have increased from less than 0.01 percent in 1920, to more the five percent in 2009, according to research paper by the International Journal of Environmental Science and Development.

Germany is facing a wave of incoming migrants. In the first six months of 2014, there were more asylum seekers in Germany - about 65,700 - than any other country worldwide. Many were from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

About one-third of Germans have an unfavourable view of the Muslims in their country, according to a Pew Research Centre survey, higher than in France and the United Kingdom. Twenty-nine percent of Germans said immigrants are a burden because they take jobs and social benefits.

One of the reasons for the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment is the growing visibility of Muslims - immigrants and German-born, according to Schirin Amir-Moazami, a professor at Berlin Free University's Institute of Islamic Studies.

"I think there is an awareness that Muslims have taken roots in German society and that they are not quiet actors any longer; that they are making claims in terms of political participation, public participation, public visibility," said Amir-Moazami.

"Muslims are becoming increasingly visible in many different ways, and people are disturbed by that. A lot of people have difficulty to accept pluralism in the broader sense."

PEGIDA activists are trying to benefit from attitudes, fears and prejudices towards Muslims and immigration and diversity in general, according to Ralf Melzer, who monitors extremism for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German non-profit. He said hostility towards immigrants exists throughout Germany, but it is more widespread in the eastern part of country.

Protesters hold a sign denouncing Islamic law in Dresden at last Monday's demonstration [Yermi Brenner/Al Jazeera]

"The number of people with migrant background in the east is much lower than in the west. There is much less diversity," Melzer said. "And we all know from different surveys that the less diversity - less people with migration background - means more prejudices, more anti-attitudes towards migrants."

Public debate needed

One of the participants in the latest Dresden demonstration was Leif Hansen, from the nearby town of Hertzberg. Hansen, 40, came to show his support for PEGIDA, even though he said the arrival of foreigners benefits German society both socially and economically.

Hansen said he felt constructive public discussion on migration and minority issues is missing from the public sphere. It is a suppressed topic because of the legacy of World War II, and there are many Germans who fear foreigners, he explained, so it is better to have an open discussion about it.

"That is their fear and that is their opinion, and I am really happy that they have the courage to voice it, and not hold it inside - the feeling of resentment," Hansen said.

"It is better to voice it out, to stand in public and say, 'This is my problem, now what do we do with it.' Then we can handle it all together. It shows the strength of our democracy I think to handle it without violence."

PEGIDA's next protest is planned for Monday evening. Germany is waiting to see if the number of participants will continue to grow. 

Follow Yermi Brenner on Twitter: @yermibrenner

Source: Al Jazeera