The Politics of Last Names

Afghanistan joins a long list of countries that have urged their people to adopt surnames.

Kathy Ponce/Flickr

Last names are deeply personal, a kind of shorthand for expressing family bonds. But they’re also profoundly political, reflecting the machinations of governments in the countries that family has passed through over time. The latest example comes courtesy of Afghanistan, where officials are conducting the first nationwide census in three and a half decades—and confronting a major obstacle: names in the country are malleable, and many Afghans use only one. The government’s solution is to urge its people to take on surnames. “The remote, tribal nature of Afghan villages may have had something to do with the lack of surnames,” The New York Times recently noted. “So perhaps did the historic weakness of national governments, which have tended to require fixed names in the interest of keeping track of people, to draft them or tax them.”

Compared with similar campaigns elsewhere in the world, the current drive in Afghanistan is remarkably benign. One major goal of the census is to “know the needs of the nation, and the most basic step is knowing your population,” Bilal Askaryar, the communications and outreach liaison at the Afghan embassy in Washington, D.C., told me. Officials hope to not only better estimate the size of the population, but also to register Afghans in a central ID system and avoid the kind of voter fraud that came close to sparking civil war in the multi-ethnic country last year. And while the government is actively encouraging the adoption of last names, it is not yet compulsory by law to do so and the request is open-ended—Afghans can choose whatever surname they’d like.

The approach stands in contrast to the tack taken in the past by other governments, which have compelled their populations to adopt surnames, or change them, in pursuit of larger political goals. Consider, for instance, how Spanish colonial authorities handled the issue in the Philippines. In 1849, Governor Narciso Claveria decreed that Filipinos be assigned hereditary surnames. Up until that point, most Filipinos had a single name, which made it difficult to operate a bureaucracy. Claveria’s solution to the confusion in “the administration of justice, government, finance and public order” was to release a catalog of names, from which each family in the country would be assigned a fixed surname. Unlike in Afghanistan, this decree was compulsory and enforced via the educational system and parish priests. As a result, many Filipinos today carry around a constant reminder of their colonial heritage—a reminder thrust upon them for the sake of bureaucratic efficiency.

Modern-day Turks also bear government-enforced surnames. Whereas Claveria ostensibly introduced surnames in the interest of good governance, the Turkish government embraced the measure as part of a broader project to build a modern, Westernized nation-state out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Passed in 1934, the Surname Law was “an agent of social makeover to mold citizens into a homogenous, national unit,” according to Senem Aslan, a professor at Bates College. But Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Ataturk itself being a new surname granted to the Turkish president by the Turkish parliament) and his government confronted a challenge: Turkey was a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional state. The Surname Law sought to eradicate any personal markers that might differentiate a non-Turk from the greater Turkish state. As Aslan explains, “the Surname Law was a tool for the creation of Turkish national identity and an ethnically indistinguishable citizenry.”

More than a century earlier, Central and Eastern European countries charted a comparable course. Surnames were common in Europe at the time, but one group in particular still held to its traditional naming conventions: the Jews. Besides the Jewish community in Prague, the vast majority of European Jews lacked surnames prior to 1787. In that year, however, Emperor Joseph II of the Habsburg Empire decreed that “Jewry in all the provinces should be urged to … adopt a constant surname.” Compulsory adoption of German surnames was only one component of Joseph’s larger goal of making the “numerous members of the Jewish nation more useful to the state.” Other major powers with significant Jewish populations—Prussia, Bavaria, and the Russian Empire, among others—followed suit over the next century.

The impetus behind these surname policies was the Enlightenment-era goal of assimilating European Jewry into civil society. In fact, the adoption of surnames was seen as an essential quid pro quo for Prussian Jews to acquire citizenship. But the names also set the Jews apart. In Prussia, for example, laws prohibited Jews from altering their surnames to something that was less identifiably Jewish. As the German linguist Dietz Bering wrote, “the Jews, for whom in 1812 the gates of the legal ghetto had been opened only half-heartedly and not even completely, were to be imprisoned again in another ghetto: one of names.” A similar process took place in Russia.

States long wielded surnames as a means of consolidating power and establishing more sophisticated forms of government administration, according to the political scientist James Scott. But these days, he argues, the last name is losing some of its potency as a political tool. "The creation of birth and death certificates, more specific addresses (that is, more specific than something like ‘John-on-the-hill’), identity cards, passports, social security numbers, photographs, fingerprints, and, most recently, DNA profiles have superseded the rather crude instrument of the permanent surname. But the surname was a first and crucial step toward making individual citizens officially legible," he writes in Seeing Like a State.

Still, the practice did crop up recently in Bulgaria. As a former part of the Ottoman Empire, the country has historically been home to Turkish Muslims and Bulgarian Muslims, commonly known as Pomaks. During communist rule, both populations were pressured to assimilate and regain their “original Bulgarian identity.” The campaign culminated in the 1980s during the government’s “Process of Rebirth” program. Turks and Bulgarian-speaking Muslims alike were forced to replace their traditional names with Bulgarian ones. The authorities even went so far as to erase Turkish names in cemeteries. This renaming effort, in concert with the repression of Turkish cultural expression, induced a mass exodus of ethnic Turks to Turkey. Those Turks who remained were only permitted to reassert their Turkish identity—and reclaim their Turkish names—after the fall of the communist government in 1989. The episode offers a lesson as true in Afghanistan as in Bulgaria: Surnames forge a family’s identity, but they also signify how that family has negotiated its identity with the countries it has called home.