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  • Shaping and Reshaping Colonial Ottomanism:Contesting Boundaries of Difference and Integration in Ottoman Yemen, 1872-1919
  • Thomas Kühn (bio)

On 19 October 1911 Ahmed 'İzzet Paşa, the commander in chief of the Ottoman military forces in Yemen, and the Zaydi imam al-Mutawakkil Yahya ibn Muhammad (d. 1948) signed an agreement at Da''an that made Yahya a dependent ruler and Zaydi community leader under Ottoman sovereignty. This agreement brought to a close more than two decades of fierce confrontation between the imam and his predecessors on one side and the imperial government in Istanbul on the other. Historians of Yemen have interpreted the Da''an agreement as Imam Yahya's first step toward building an independent Yemeni state, a goal that he would eventually realize in the years following the withdrawal of the Ottomans from southwest Arabia in the aftermath of World War I.1 In this article I demonstrate that this agreement and the political arrangements it ushered in also tell us something important about imperial governance in the late Ottoman Empire. More specifically, I argue that the negotiated settlement with the imam as well as the political struggles, controversies, and alternative schemes that preceded it were all integral parts of those politics of difference that came to demarcate the Province of Yemen as a subordinate, colonial space within the Ottoman imperial system.

From the 1860s, the Ottoman central government and its representatives made unprecedented attempts to implement throughout the empire a uniform system of administration, taxation, military recruitment, and education in order to ward off both the encroachments on the part of European imperial powers and separatist challenges at the domestic level. These efforts intensified during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876–1909). Under the auspices of Ottomanism, which has often been interpreted as a form of official nationalism, the objective was to forge a population of loyal Ottoman subjects or protocitizens in order to make the empire more resilient against these external and internal pressures.2 To be sure, these attempts [End Page 315] had started somewhat earlier in those parts of Ottoman Europe, Anatolia, and Ottoman Syria that the central government found easier to access and control. However, recent studies suggest that it was only at this stage that they also came to include some of the empire's external and internal peripheries, such as Ottoman Transjordan or present-day northern Albania.3

The reconquest of large parts of southwest Arabia by Ottoman military forces in 1871–73 and the subsequent creation of the new Province of Yemen are part of this broader context. Following up on the occupation of Yemen's coastal plain (Tihama) in 1849, the imperial government reasserted its control over significant portions of an area that had been part of the empire for about a hundred years until Zaydi imams of the Qasimi line brought this earlier Ottoman presence to an end in the 1630s. Ottoman bureaucrats and military officers in Yemen resembled other imperial conquerors of this period in that they sought to legitimate their rule by representing the population of the newly established province as "savages" (vahşi) who were in need of being uplifted through the practices and institutions of the modern state.4 However, there is evidence that in marked contrast to their British, French, or Russian counterparts in India, West Africa, or Turkistan they initially did not intend to institutionalize what they recognized as the difference and cultural inferiority of the indigenous population and thus to create a rule of colonial difference.5 Rather, encouraged by what had been a series of quick and decisive victories over the most important local lords, Ottoman decision makers in Istanbul and Yemen appear to have been convinced that the process of integrating the local population into the Ottoman state would be completed within a relatively short period. To facilitate integration, they created all those administrative structures in the new province that, theoretically at least, could be found in every province of the empire. In January 1873 Ahmed Muhtar Paşa, the commander of the Ottoman expeditionary force and first governor-general of Yemen, notified the grand vizier that he had turned Yemen into an imperial...


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pp. 315-331
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