Algeria Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ethnic identity is a complex subject. In this lesson, we are going to talk about the North African nation of Algeria and explore the different meanings that ethnicity can have within a country.


Ethnic identity can be a funny thing. Yes, it's partly a matter of genetics, based on where your ancestors are from and which phenotypic traits were passed on. On the other hand, it's a matter of choice. How people choose to remember their ancestry and what they do with that information is just as important. One place where we can really see this is Algeria, a North African nation along the Mediterranean. Depending on who you ask, Algeria is either one of the most ethnically homogeneous nations in the world, or a pretty diverse one. Identity can be funny that way.


Arab-Berber Ethnicity

In terms of statistics, Algeria seems to be a pretty uniform nation. Officially, 99% of Algerians identify as ethnically Arab-Berber. That's a pretty substantial majority. However, this term implies mixed ancestry. In reality, most Algerians identify with one side of their heritage more than the other.

Arab Ethnicity in Algeria

Arab ethnicity is based in the Arabian Peninsula. Arab groups spread across North Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries, bringing Islam with them, and now make up a majority population in many nations of the region. This success of immigrating Arab populations centuries ago in influencing local cultures can be seen in other demographic facts as well; over 99% of Algerians are Muslim.

Partly due to the strong association between Islam and Arab identity, there is a fair amount of social pressure in Algeria to identify with Arab ancestry. In fact, roughly 85% of the nation identifies much more strongly with their Arab heritage than their Berber heritage. The interesting thing about this is that in terms of actual genetic ancestry, few Algerians are actually Arab. Most Algerians are (genetically) almost entirely Berber. However, local cultural pressures and a pan-Islamic identity across North Africa have made being Arab a very desirable thing. This trend, common across the region, is called Arabizing. Historically, it was a defined agenda of some political leaders. Today, it's more a matter of pride in Arab cultural heritage and close association between ethnic and religious identity.

Berber Identity

So, if most Algerians are genetically Berber, what does this mean? Berbers are an ethnic group ancestrally indigenous to North Africa, also called the Amazigh. Historically, there was little to no semblance of Berber identity, with Berber groups identifying with tribes or clans rather than nationality or ethnicity. This is another reason that Arab identity became so strong; Berber identity was too varied to form the basis of a national identity.

Today, roughly 15% of Algerians identify more strongly with their Berber heritage. Generally, this involves rejecting Arab identity, although most Berbers are still Muslims. So, there really is very little sense of Arab-Berber ethnic identity. It's mostly one or the other. The 15% who identify as Berber mostly live in the mountainous Kabylie region, and have actually been pushing for full political autonomy. This fight has turned violent in the past. While the Algerian government is unwilling to grant autonomy, they have tried to placate Berber nationalists in other ways. The Berber language is an official language of Algeria, with at least four major dialects recognized, and the government has offered to begin teaching Berber languages in school

Kabyle Berbers

The four dialects of the Berber language represent some of the major groups within this ethnicity. The largest population are the Kabyle people, who speak the Kabyle Berber language. The Kabyle people are mostly in charge of Berber autonomy and identity movements in Algeria. However, even within this group are variations of identity. Some Kabyle want to see all of Algeria embrace a shared Berber identity, while others are pushing a strictly Kabyle identity distinct from other Berbers.

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Shawia Berbers

The Shawia people are another major Berber group, who speak the Shawiya Berber language. The Shawia were historically a rural people, detached from many political events in urban Algeria. However, in modern times they have joined with the Kabyle to press for greater Berber cultural recognition. In some areas, people are pushing for Shawiya and other dialects to be taught in public schools.

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