Americans understand that to a Muslim the Koran is sacred. What Americans don't understand is that to a Muslim a Koran is sacred.
The West has spent 2500 years desacralizing the world. What matters to the West is not a thing but the idea it represents.
For sentimental reasons a Christian might be upset by someone burning a Bible. But ultimately what matters to a Christian is not a Bible but its ideas. Copies of the Bible come and go. We use them as coasters for a cold can of beer in a Motel 6.
An individual Bible isn't sacred because, to the West, nothing material is sacred. Plato argued that to imagine the material world as sacred is folly—an exercise in futility. Material objects turn to dust. They burn. They cease to be. Better—far wiser—to value ideas, which are not subject to the vagaries of time and circumstance. A soldier with a match cannot destroy the thought in your head.
The history of Western culture can be summarized as the triumph of that idea.
We don't like to see people burn a flag, but we value the idea of freedom of speech more than we value a flag. Anyway, the flag is not America. America is what I think it is. As a material object in the world, there is nothing really, organically sacred about the cloth of a flag.
To a Muslim the physical world continues to be divided between the sacred and the profane. A Koran—every single Koran—is a sacred object. It is a divine manifestation. To burn it and throw it in a pile of trash is to treat God himself as trash. A Koran is important for its ideas, but it's equally important as a sacred object in the world, a persisting physical embodiment of the voice of God.
It's basically impossible for a modern Westerner to think of objects this way. There are no sacred places, no sacred objects. Our churches are tourist destinations. "Antique Roadshow" determines the real value of our family heirlooms. A girl's body sells soda pop.
And an Afghan Muslim can't think as as we do. The world is filled with sacred objects, sacred places. The family Koran, carefully wrapped in the finest silks, is a physical manifestation of God in the home. It is sacred; it pulses with the divine. A mosque isn't a tourist destination but the physical presence of heaven on earth. (A Mormon, with his restricted temples, his blessed undergarments, knows something about this kind of thinking.) A girl's body, like the Greek nymphs that preceded Plato's insurrection, is too sacred for a man to look upon without both the girl and the man being destroyed.
The West won't re-sanctify the world—at least not any time soon. Capitalism surpasses all previous revolutions in its indifference to the sacred. Love alone—including the body of the beloved—retains some hint of holiness. With the death of love we will complete Plato's assault upon the gods. Eros, it appears, will be the last of them to fall. And fall he will.
The Muslim world has taken another path. A Muslim treasures matter. A woman's hair. A book. An old pillar in the heart of dusty Mecca.
Today, contemplating the violence in Afghanistan, it's difficult to imagine our paths converging.
More than that: I'm not sure we want them to. After all, it's nice to know, if only for the purposes of nostalgia, that someone, somewhere, still thinks that something is sacred.