Chalk it up to the influence of his fashion model wife, perhaps, but French President Nicolas Sarkozy seems determined to put his stamp on Muslim clothing styles.
Sarkozy apparently is responding to an unease among the French about the impact of a growing Muslim population on what had once been a homogeneous Gallic culture.
As an imam, I have to agree with one thing Sarkozy said. Burkas are not a religious sign. The head-to-toe robes that cover the face are a cultural custom in some predominately Muslim societies. If Islam required them, they would be worn by the faithful from Morocco to Indonesia.
In fact, women on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina are not allowed to cover their faces.
Islam requires modesty in female dress. Around the world, one sees that requirement fulfilled by a variety of styles, most often of the hijab, which covers everything but face and hands.
Is the burka a symbol of repression? If a government tells a woman what she must wear, that could be considered repression. And if a government tells a woman what she cannot wear, that could be repression, too.
If the French government tells a woman that she cannot wear a burka or limit where she can wear the hijab, then it is infringing on her cultural right to wear what she wants.
Instead, I have a different proposal for Sarkozy. Everywhere Muslims go, they eventually adapt their clothing style to the cultural mores of their adopted countries. In India, Muslim women wear saris. In Malaysia, they wear sarongs. In France, it will be no different.
So the French, with their enormous impact on haute couture have a terrific opportunity here.
Sarkozy should announce a competition among the top French fashion designers - Hermes, Yves St. Laurent, Chanel, Christian La Croix, Givenchy, Christian Dior. The challenge would be to remake Muslim fashion with French haute couture.
Imagine what would happen if a top fashion model walked down the runway in a Hermes-designed burka, or if Muslim women could vie for the latest French designs of their hijab? An entire line of French clothing could be designed to meet the Islamic need for modesty.
Instead of tension between the French government and the Muslim world, this would create a new interfaith "dialogue."
French-designed burkas and hijab could sweep through the Muslim world with its market of more than 700-million women. France could revitalize an entire industry, opening clothing manufacturers around the country.
Perhaps we have an idea here that could help bring France out of the economic crisis, promote reconciliation between Muslims and the West, and make the world safe for Givenchy.
Abdul Rauf is chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, an independent, non-partisan and multi-national project that seeks to use religion to improve Muslim-West relations. (www.cordobainitiative.org). He is the author of "What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America."