This question often comes up when Islam is being discussed, with critics of Islam (either in general or just of related issues like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or gender segregation in universities) being accused of racism.
The Simple Answer
Criticism of Islam is not racism, as Islam is a religion, not a race.
The Intuition Problem
I think the simple answer is true, but it is worth discussing further as it runs counter to many people’s intuition that there is some element of race involved.
The first explanation for the intuition is that Islam is a relatively recent* foreign import into the West, with most of its adherents being brown-skinned.
The second is that groups and individuals considered racist for other reasons often oppose Islam as part of their agenda.
It is this second explanation that gives us a clue to solving the intuitive problem. The British National Party is seen as racist not because of their stance on Islam in particular but because of their policy (and history) overall. Their opposition to Islam is likely motivated by racism, and that is what makes us associate the hostility towards Islam of groups like the BNP and racism.
Compare this motivation to that of secularists, atheists, and liberals. They oppose Islam because it is a religion like any other (and so it discovers its doctrines by revelation rather than reason), and it tends to be associated with practices unpalatable to a consistent liberal, such as female genital mutilation, gender segregation, and opposition to core liberal values like free speech†.
It is in this latter camp that you’ll find people like Salman Rushdie, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher. They are occasionally accused of racism because of their sometimes heavy-handed criticism of Islam, but I believe that to be a result of confusion based on the intuition problem above.
Now, while I’ve stated that criticism of Islam is not itself racist, it is possible to be racist in one’s criticism of the religion. This tends to be confined to the former group – the far right groups who oppose Islam because they are racist. Examples might include saying things like “well if they’re going to come over here…”, and concerns about their “breeding rates”. It is not that they’re criticising Islam per se, but because they are talking about Muslims in general as if they are unwelcome immigrants. I’ve never heard this sort of language from the secular liberals.
In summary: the far-right racists oppose Islam because they are racist, and see Islam as “the religion of the foreigners”. The secular liberals oppose Islam because all or some parts of Islam run counter to secular liberal values. If we are honest, we need to be careful that we aren’t mistaking the motivations of the latter group for those of the former (and vice versa).
So, when answering the central question of this post, I tend to give the simple answer but include a caveat:
The Simple Answer With Caveat
Criticism of Islam is not racism, as Islam is a religion, not a race. However, it is sometimes motivated by racism.
* A more recent foreign import than Christianity, at least.
† I don’t want to say that these vile practices are a necessary part of Islam – that’s another discussion entirely. All we need to consider is that many liberals find the motivation to oppose Islam (in some sense) in these sorts of practices.